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Anyone for Tea?

Last month I had the great privilege of being hosted by the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka on a visit to some of the many tea plantations on this beautiful tropical island.

Tea has become synonymous with Sri Lanka yet it is hard to believe that it arrived by accident. Up to the middle of the 19th century, Sri Lanka's hillsides were planted with coffee. However, in 1867, a young Scot called James Taylor decided to plant some tea bushes in place of the coffee and, as they say, the rest is history.

Well, not quite. Tea is a pretty labour intensive business. Only the tips of the bushes are picked and it is pretty delicate work. But it is also work done in the heat of the day and each picker is expected to pluck 20kgs each per day. In Sri Lanka, as in other places where they took the humble tea bush, the British also brought a compliant workforce. Indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu in south India were shipped to Sri Lanka and Kenya, among other places, to work the long and painstaking hours required for a successful tea industry.

In Sri Lanka, these tea plantation workers were housed in poor conditions on the tea estates and never really integrated with the local population. Their villages and communities were never recognised as anything other than the property of the plantation owners, something that remains true to this day.

Visiting these tea gardens provoked two thoughts: firstly, that multiculturalism can be hard, even when people look like us and talk the same language, and; secondly, that ethical consumerism can make a difference.

The plantation workers are Tamils, and yet continue to be treated differently by Sri Lankan Tamils who share the same language and heritage. Up-country Tamils have been refused citizenship, forcibly deported, and denied access to proper medical and education services. They are therefore more likely to be poor. This is why the NCCSL are engaging in empowerment work among the women and men on the plantations and advocacy work in the wider Sri Lankan society. We can all find reasons not to connect with others and deny the reality of a multicultural society.

This was not the first plantation I had visited but it was the best. It was also my first visit to a Rainforest Alliance certified plantation and there were a lot of obvious signs of better conditions for workers around. I have been a bit sceptical about the Rainforest Alliance mark and have generally preferred Fair Trade, but I was pleasantly surprised that even this was making a difference. I would still opt for fair or direct trade, but this mark is still something and shows that ethical consumers can make some difference.

Having said all that, I am deeply concerned that tea

plantation workers and their families suffer pretty awful conditions. Is there more that can be done by those of us who drink what is the most popular drink on the planet? I have decided to try to do something. I have begun to look at which companies are behind the big brands of tea sold on the High Street and have tried to find out more about their ethical and fairtrade policies. I have also discovered the Ethical Tea Partnership ( and the work they do to promote better conditions for tea workers and more environmentally sustainable cultivation.

So how do we make sure that what goes into our daily cuppa is good for the workers and the planet as well as us? Can we work with Christians in Sri Lanka and Kenya to 'join the dots' in the tea supply chain? Are there investigative journalists who could trace which cup the tea picked on the worst estates ends up in? And could Western Christians invest in tea suppliers in order to ask embarrassing questions at Shareholder meetings? I've just bought some shares in Assoc British Food, the owners of Twinnings, as a first commitment. It's a start ...

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