A cuppa reality: The truth behind your brew

It’s estimated 25 million men, women and children across the world are affected by forced labour. Professor Genevieve LeBaron from the University of Sheffield explores why it is prevalent in supply chains and how we can all help to put a stop to so-called modern day slavery.

Hand holding tea leaves

The reality of plantation life

If you close your eyes and imagine a tea plantation, many of us will conjure up an idyllic scene brimming with endless rows of bright green, luscious plants, dotted with workers in traditional dress and woven hats, leisurely plucking leaves in the sunshine.

But the tranquil scene engrained in consumers’ minds is a stark contrast to the conditions endured by many tea plantation workers.

“The pretty pictures we see on shiny boxes of tea or adverts are incredibly different to reality – even on many ethically certified plantations,” explains Genevieve LeBaron, a Professor of Politics from the University of Sheffield who has dedicated years of research to the investigation of global supply chains and forced labour.

“Many tea workers lack basic necessities like water, toilets, housing, and sufficient food. Plantations can be very isolated, and while plantation owners have an obligation to provide and maintain these services and goods, in practice, they often don’t. Tea workers are paid so little that they have no other way to secure these things themselves."

“Instead of the picturesque, serene and happy environments, we consumers like to envisage, for many workers tea plantations are harsh and difficult places to work.”

Worker in field

The truth is hard to swallow

Picking tea leaves is back-breaking, intensive work. In the summer, during peak picking season, most workers are stretched to the very limits of what is physically possible, trying to pick enough tea to meet the quotas set by managers, just to earn their extremely low wages.

“It’s not uncommon for workers to pick 80kg of leaves a day – that’s the weight of 25,600 teabags – in order for them to make around 140 rupees, which is about £1.50.

“In spite of their hard work, many workers are living on the absolute bare minimum and are struggling to obtain the food, health care, and water they need. Many are in a desperate situation,” said Genevieve.

“Companies take advantage of this. They are supposed to provide adequate housing to tea workers and their families, but workers reported that in reality, there may be as many as 14 people squashed into a single room without running water or stable electricity.

It is hard to believe that they face such terrible conditions and suffering in the 21st century – especially when this is completely preventable

Professor Genevieve LeBaron

Because plantations are in such remote, rural areas, there is very little monitoring of the working conditions and workers are left vulnerable at the hands of their employers. It also means that there are seldom in-depth checks on site – even at plantations that are certified.

The plantations are often cut off from towns or villages so if workers need medical attention or have other emergencies, they are left with no choice but to borrow money from their employers or others on the plantation to obtain private medical care. Plantation owners have an obligation to provide medical care, but in reality, this is often inadequate. This sometimes leads to situations of debt bondage.

As well as working excruciatingly hard for exceptionally low wages, debt bondage can mean their salaries are often manipulated or taken away from them entirely. In Genevieve’s research, workers frequently reported being underpaid and being charged for services that should be free or that they were not receiving.

“Workers have no choice but to be reliant on the plantation manager when they need urgent medical attention or transportation to the nearest doctor. This is often miles and miles away.”

“The insufficient money they earn, and the limited reach of the government in these remote areas, means that their welfare and their family’s welfare frequently lies primarily in the hands of their employers.”

“Their situation is desperate but the workers don’t have any means of leaving and lack the money, skills, and education they would need to find alternative work. They are forced into an endless gruelling catch 22.”

Trapped in the cycle of unfair conditions whilst being reliant on the low wages, workers’ plights go undetected by the companies who buy and sell tea to consumers across the world.

“One issue with the tea trade, like many other industries, is that there is very little traceability. The leaves are often grown in one country, manufactured in another and packaged in another before being imported into the UK to be sold,” said Genevieve.

Forced Labor and Workers Rights

“This is because regulations are not adequately enforced on the plantations. They are in very remote areas so owners don’t have to worry about regular inspections and are often left to their own devices and self regulation.

“If plantations are certified there is often a conflict of interest for the inspectors who are put under immense pressure and are sometimes forced into turning a blind eye because of money and profit margins.

“To look at the labour standards within the industry we went to the bottom of the supply chain and interviewed workers on both certified and non-certified plantations. What was most surprising is that there was very little difference in labour standards between the two.”

What does forced labour look like?

Slavery was abolished more than 200 years ago – yet today it is estimated over 25 million men, women and children are affected by forced labour around the world.

Most often found in industries that are labour intensive and low skilled, such as agriculture, construction, and domestic work, forced labour is a common form of modern slavery.

“People aren’t really sure what forced labour looks like. They envisage people physically chained to walls, but it is actually a sophisticated operation of manipulation.”

Forced labour is described by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which people are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.

Although many people associate forced labour with physical violence, a number of other strategies used to make people work are more subtle.

The ILO estimated three out of every 1,000 people worldwide are victims of forced labour, trapped in jobs which they were deceived or coerced into and which they cannot leave.

Forced labour affects the most vulnerable and excluded groups in society which are poverty stricken and have a lack of sustainable jobs and education, as well as an economy dependent on cheap labour. Migrant workers are often targeted because they don’t speak the language, have few friends and depend heavily on their employers.

The missing link in the supply chain

“It is easy for people to think that forced labour is a hidden crime – but that is rather convenient for governments,” said Genevieve.

“It isn’t actually hidden. It’s possible to pinpoint where in supply chains forced labour is likely to occur, which types of businesses are likely to have a demand for it, and how businesses make money from it.”

Genevieve’s extensive research has focused on: understanding why organisations exploit workers with forced labour, why they so frequently get away with it and how it makes them money – in order to learn how we can mitigate against it.

It isn’t actually hidden. It’s possible to pinpoint where in supply chains forced labour is likely to occur, which types of businesses are likely to have a demand for it, and how businesses make money from it.

Professor Genevieve LeBaron

“When I was an undergraduate student in the US I was particularly interested in prison labour. It came at a time when some companies were closing manufacturing plants and moving their labour behind bars,” said Genevieve.

“I became curious about forced labour and its role and the value to companies. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the topic and have never lost my intrigue.

“With such an outstanding Department of Politics and the Sheffield Political Economic Research Centre (SPERI), the University of Sheffield was a very obvious choice for me to conduct my research.”

So what can we do?

Workers in field

For almost 25 years, conscious shoppers have opted to pay an extra pound or two for certain products to help them avoid a nagging guilty feeling that their chocolate bar, coffee beans or tea bags might not have been ethically produced.

Increasing consumer awareness is inevitably a step in the right direction, helping to hold global conglomerates and governments to account. Genevieve’s pioneering research has been recognised by key players as being instrumental in helping big businesses and governments to identify and stamp out forced labour.

“It is time that global companies, governments and NGOs pushed for change. Workers need a seat at the table so they can be included in decisions which will have a real impact,” said Genevieve.

“Government and business actors – including big brands, certification bodies, and others – have reached out to discuss how to address these challenges and we are in conversation with them. Awareness of the need to tackle forced labour in global supply chains is increasing, which is positive, but concrete action towards solutions is still badly needed.

“As a first step, the government can strengthen its enforcement of existing regulation on forced labour in supply chains. The UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act has a provision that requires companies to report on what they are doing to prevent and address forced labour in supply chains.

“However, less than half of the companies thought to be covered under the act have actually filed a Modern Slavery statement to date. The government could put in place an enforcement mechanism and penalty for non-compliance, and could also strengthen the law such that companies are not just asked to report on the steps they are taking, but rather on the effectiveness of those steps in actually addressing the problems and risks of forced labour relevant to their supply chain.”

Genevieve is currently working on a new project on business innovation at the bottom of the supply chain in collaboration with fellow world-leading academics.

The research focuses on the garment industry in Tamil Nadu, India, a major export region for products destined for the UK high street.

The team are investigating incentivising changes at the bottom of the supply chains among local business leaders as a solution to the problem of forced labour. The project, funded by the British Academy and UK Department for International Development, is important given the failures and limited effectiveness of ‘top down’ approaches to combating exploitation in supply chains, such as social auditing.

“Looking to the future I hope the public will take away that forced labour cannot be addressed by tinkering around the edges of supply chains,” said Genevieve.

“If we are serious about tackling the business of forced labour, we need to work towards solutions that address the root causes of the problem, including living wages, corporate sourcing policies and practices, and stronger governance of global supply chains.”

More than 165 million cups of tea are drunk each day in the UK – that’s 60.2 billion a year. The research conducted by Genevieve and her colleagues has highlighted the importance of picking your favourite brew carefully and the pioneering work conducted at the University of Sheffield will help to shape the future of tea drinking not just in Yorkshire or the UK, but across the world.

Written by Amy Huxtable, Media Officer, The University of Sheffield

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