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.

Tea pluckers in Sri Lankan Highlands – by Anja Leidel

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.

Join in!

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?

2 Responses to “Tea: Debt and Migration”
  1. Darrell says:

    I don’t know enough about the fair trade system you mention to judge it. I know something about international trade and how it works, but not the fair trade system. It seems though that a business person who imports and resells tea, chocolate, or whatever has to remain competative with other importers who may not be concerned about the issues that would make one seek the fair trade system. It might not be realistic to ask a business to intentionally become less competitive especially during these times.

    Debt for those tea workers or for anyone else is usually a slow death rather than a quick and probably more merciful one. The only debt that makes sense for most people right now is productive debt or the debt used to produce income. For those tea workers it is probably not by choice that they do it, but it still just delays the inevitable. too bad they don’t have a bankruptcy system.

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