International Law

Human Rights Violations Served With Tea

Imagine you were born the child of a tea plucker on a plantation in India. Your parents are functional illiterates who work long hours for less than USD $2 per day to feed the family. If your family is lucky, you will be able to eat just enough to live but remain malnourished. If one of the unfortunate, you may starve to death when a parent dies or becomes unemployed.

Early parental death is common. Those who pluck tea for a living can expect to die at 50. And as the child of a tea plucker, you can expect to follow in their footsteps. With a sixth grade education or less, there will not be employment opportunities for you other than as a modern day tea plantation serf, assuming you live long enough.

If your parents' employer should close down, even temporarily, there's a real danger that you will die. India's human rights commission is currently investigating the starvation deaths of 15 people attributed to the closure of a tea plantation last year. 13 were dependents and 2 were workers. If you were one of the children who died, any surviving family can take a little comfort if they receive the USD $1,790 the human rights commission has valued as total compensation for your life.

This dire outlook for tea workers and their families is not unique to India. In Sri Lanka, workers make less than USD $5 per day. In China, the poor conditions faced by tea workers have been offset by labor mobility to urban areas. In fact, parents send their children to cities to work as unskilled labor at pay rates nearly tenfold the compensation paid for plucking tea.

To be sure, efforts are underway by Fair Trade USA and other NGOs to improve the conditions of tea workers and their children. Yet clearly there is a role for government agencies to step up in these countries to protect the fundamental human rights of these families, provide educational opportunities for dependents, and ensure appropriate assistance is in place to prevent malnourishment and starvation. The United States, Canada, and the European Union could wield enormous economic pressure by imposing high tariffs or outright bans on tea grown or processed in violation of human rights.

On the individual consumer side, before purchasing your next cup of tea, make sure you are not indirectly funding the violation of human rights abroad.

Recommended Reading

VIDEO: The Bitter Taste of Tea: A Journey into the World, Films on Demand

Fair Trade Tea Certification Program,

The real cost of a cuppa, Radio Netherlands Worldwide (June 6, 2012)

The Last of the Tea Pluckers, Huffington Post (June 5, 2012)

National Human Rights Commission hears rights violation cases, Times of India (May 28, 2012)

Why the rising price of tea in China is not entirely bad news, T Ching (May 25, 2012)

SRI LANKA: Tea Workers' Demand for Higher Wages Hits a Snag, (Sep. 15, 2009)