Tea: Debt and Migration
Who knew that a regular job producing a commodity the entire world consumes could lead to so much insecurity?
Many women across the globe pick tea leaves in an effort to feed their families and provide education to their children. Despite the rain-or-shine, labor-intensive duties and low pay, the job provides income and, in many cases, on-site housing for the worker and even the worker’s family.
But with extremely low wages on tea plantations worldwide, and fluctuating and unpredictable industry prices, working as a picker on the farms can be an up-and-down battle. One day a picker saves up enough money to purchase her own land, or invest in education for her children, or bury a relative. The next day tea prices have dwindled, and she has lost her home to large corporations and wonders where her children will sleep for the night.
Many tea farmers in Southeast Asia have become severely impoverished at times of low tea prices, including a recent downturn in Burma in 2009 after a contamination scare. Workers began taking out loans to cover basic needs like food and health costs, and now are left with soaring debts.
The market’s volatility and a desire to flee the resulting poverty and debt have some tea workers on the move. If they own small plots of land, they can sell them and move somewhere else with the hope of finding better work.
But in the tea-growing regions (shown below), better work is sometimes hard to find.
That is why many farmers are banding together to form co-operatives that ensure better wages, proper housing, and a chance for their children to receive education. Some farms have also seen good results from becoming Fair Trade certified.
Take the Chamraj tea estate in southeastern India, for example. As one of the first tea farms to become Fair Trade certified in the mid-1990’s, the estate has seen a steady growth in development on behalf of the workers – including a quality school and competitive medical center:
Fair Trade is a complex issue, and a debate rages as to whether or not it is a scam that benefits large corporations more than the farmers.
But as economists and consumers work out alternatives to the Fair Trade system, the farmers in debt and economic instability seem grateful for any extra funds that can help ward off homelessness and economic migration.
Do you think Fair Trade is a good thing, a scam, or maybe both?
Do you know of any good alternatives to the Fair Trade system?