New Internationalist

Of Human Bondage

Issue 084

Sharpening its attempts to prick the tea companies’ composite conscience, WDM has published a booklet entitled ‘The Tea Trade’ which blends the old arguments for a better deal for their tea workers with a wealth of new information.

Tea Trade’ claims that developing countries get too little for their tea, estate workers’ wages and conditions are not acceptable, and, yet, the British tea-aholic is paying too much for a cuppa.

WDM researchers who travelled to India and East Africa returned with some disturbing facts and observations. In Assam they found the basic wage rate was ‘about 10 per cent lower in 1976 than it was in 1961’ but because wage rates have risen faster than prices since 1976 ‘the basic wage rates are nearly back to 1960 levels’. That’s little comfort for the Indian tea worker who still got only 75 cents a day in 1978.

WDM’s Malawi report in some ways makes even more depressing reading than the Indian section. It tells of heavy press censorship and a complete lack of independent trade unions. Tea workers on British-owned estates ‘are paid as little as 15p (about 34 cents) a day … The mid-shift meal consists solely of a stodgy ground maize porridge. A morsel of dried fish is offered on the day after pay day as an incentive to entice the workers back to the estate for another week’s work. On a diet of fresh meat and milk, even the guard dogs which protect their (British managers) homes eat better than the African labourers . . .’

Brooke Bond in 1976 made a pretax profit of more than $50 million (up 80 per cent on the previous year), more than $100 million in 1977 (up 90 per cent), and more than $90 million in 1978 (despite a considerable drop in tea prices). WDM sees it this way: ‘When tea prices were rising at the auction the companies based their prices to the retailers on what it cost to buy in the next batch of tea for packeting. When auction prices began to fall, Brooke Bond and other companies charged according to what the tea had cost, not what it was going to cost them in the future.’ WDM charges that Brooke Bond used its profits to buy up new companies rather than help its estate workers who actually earned the profit.

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