Ambika and Sonada plucking tea on a plantation in Gudalur, India.
I grew up in Munnar, South India, on tea plantations owned by Scottish company, James Finlay. There were often conflicts between management and labour over pay and conditions there. I remember my Dad coming home one day spattered in blood from a smashed windscreen during riots. An Indian company, Tata Tea Ltd, took over the plantations in the 1990s. Although Tata had the same business goals, it invested heavily in the plantations, raising living standards and worker contentment.
But in 2005 Tata decided to focus on trading the processed, branded tea. I was intrigued to learn that it had sold the plantations to its former employees, who now became shareholders of a new company, KDHPL. Now, when trade prices are favourable, the workers get a dividend on top of their wages. In 2006 a KDHPL tea plucker and board member, Chandra, said: “The very feeling that I am working for my own company gives me satisfaction. It makes all of us happy,” she said.
North of Munnar, is the Chamraj tea company which claims its tea is “produced by South India’s happiest workforce” [emphasis by Chamraj]. Chamraj tea is Fairtrade certified, which means that its workers are guaranteed fair wages and decent working conditions. A Fairtrade premium paid by the customers at the end of the chain is invested in schools, hospitals and pensions.
But between Munnar and Chamraj lies Gudalur, where a group of tribal people (adivasis) may have found an even happier medium. Their way of trading means a fair price for tea farmers and tea drinkers, so everyone’s happy. I went to visit them in January this year. The rolling green fields of tea, shaded by eucalyptus trees filled with monkeys and birds filled me with nostalgia.
The adivasis’ traditional homelands had for years been encroached on by settlers and commercial enterprises. When campaigning failed, they staked their claim to the land by planting tea – a permanent crop that can be harvested all year round. They then linked up with similar groups to form a trading network called Just Change. Just Change trades through collaboration rather than competition, asking customers to pay whatever they can over a minimum price. I met poor villagers who buy the tea and other Just Change products in village shops. They told me that this pricing system was a real blessing for them as their incomes fluctuate seasonally.
Members of the Adivasi Tea Leaf Marketing group weighing tea.
One tribal woman, Ambika, told me she’d paid for her daughter Pushpa’s education with a loan from the group’s savings. With her Business Studies degree, Pushpa won’t be exploited, cheated and looked down on like her parents and grandparents were.
The happiness was spread further in 2003, when Just Change UK was set up here in Britain. Members of a community group on a government-supported housing estate in Luton, inspired by a visit from Just Change tea growers, supplement their income by distributing the tea. I became a Just Change volunteer in 2007 and introduced it to a women’s group on Blackbird Leys estate, Oxford, which buys the tea to drink themselves or sell to others.
“It’s a way that globally we can all join up and help each other,” said the Blackbird Ley’s group’s Tanya Prescott, “so our lives have meaning again instead of just being directed always by multi-national corporations…. we can see what women in India are doing and they can see what we’re doing here and our lives aren’t so different—we all have the same kind of struggles, and the same emotions, and it’s important, that connection.”
For me, that connection is a deep and personal one. But I guess everything that we drink, eat, wear or use connects us to another human being, someone like Chandra, Ambika or Pushpa who planted, nurtured, harvested and sold it to earn a living to support their families. If their lives are happy, I feel I can drink my tea without it leaving a bitter taste.
Watch this film about the women involved in the Just Change tea exchange:
Post, photos and video by Sabita Banerji.