This article was originally posted in Good Magazine.
As I settle to write this, I take a sip of rooibos tea. I drink a lot of tea, but I only came across rooibos a few years back. It’s rapidly become one of my favourites. I love its rich, earthy taste; it somehow tastes ‘warmer’ than regular tea.
But where did it come from? Who grew it?
Rooibos grows almost exclusively in the Western Cape of South Africa. It’s a broom-like plant with long thin leaves; harvesting and drying it is labour-intensive work. The areas where it grows have high unemployment, but several co-ops have formed that enable farmers to earn much better prices whilst also protecting the fragile local environment. My tea was grown by one of these, the Heiveld Cooperative that supplies Trade Aid. It has a lovely, vanilla-like flavour.
This International Tea Day (May 21st), I’d like to encourage you to think about who grew your tea, and how that’s working out for them. Because although many of us love to drink tea, it’s not always such a pleasure for those who grow it.
Much of the black tea imported into Aotearoa comes from Kenya, where around 15% of the workforce are estimated to be children. Tea workers in Asia are often subjected to forced labour, and their poor wages also make them vulnerable to being trafficked. Manju Gaur, a girl raised on a tea plantation in Assam, India, accepted a job as a domestic helper in an effort to help her desperately poor family - only to find she’d been sold into slavery, required to work without pay. When she finally managed to run away, she returned home only to find her younger sister had also been tricked and sold.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Trade Aid sells a range of teas produced by people who are earning good wages for their hard work. There’s no need for their daughters to risk accepting fake job offers like Gaur was forced to. Or look for Scarborough Fair tea at the supermarket or Clipper Tea at your favourite health food store - both of those are certified by Fairtrade, which guarantees the growers were paid more than the regular market price. Ti Ora teas are made with Rainforest Alliance certified green and black teas, as well as native New Zealand herbs. Rainforest Alliance takes a bit of a different approach from Fairtrade, but both organisations make sure there’s no forced labour or child labour happening on tea plantations. Dilmah tea is another good option. Their company was established in part to bring integrity to the tea industry in Sri Lanka. 15% of the company’s pre-tax profits are used to provide education, health and welfare services in tea-picking communities. And, unlike most of the tea we buy here, it’s processed and packaged where it’s grown. That means that more of the profits stay in Sri Lanka to help their economy grow.
As you enjoy a cuppa this International tea day, consider choosing a brand that doesn’t abuse their workers, and pays them a bit more than average. I know times are hard here too, but it makes surprisingly little difference to the price you’ll pay. You might find the tea tastes even better when you know the people who grew it are getting a fair deal too.