Tea politics

Tea plantation workers
Photo: Challiyan at Malayalam Wikipedia

At a time when good news is in short supply, I was heartened this week to see Yorkshire Tea tell a customer who made racist remarks that they didn’t want them to buy their product. I was even more heartened when that customer announced that that was fine because they’d just switch to PG tips and got told by that company that they didn’t want the custom of an out-and-out racist either.

That kind of corporate responsibility deserves our respect. Commercial organisations are not all the same. Like people some of them behave better than others.

Given the history and the ecology of tea plantations this was all the more heartening. After all the way Britain paid China for its tea was by shipping opium to the country in large quantities and then sending gun boats deep into the country to slaughter resistance. At least a century of the most brutal and unhappy period of Chinese history can be traced directly to the British people’s taste for tea and the British government’s taste for a whiff of gunshot.

Nor did things get much better when the British succeeded in smuggling tea out of China and establishing plantations in many parts of its empire. Darjeeling is a source of very superior tea but it is also the location for some of the most classic colonial exploitation. White owners and poor Indian pickers was the formula that enabled companies like PG tips to send very large dividends back to the “homeland”.

The ‘PG’ in the name is an old bit of marketing hype claiming the product is a pre-digestive and the ‘tips’ bit comes from the fact that the dirt-poor female workers pull off just the very fresh light green tips off the bush before they pack them into the heavy baskets they carry on their backs all day.

Picking tea is back-breaking work that for many decades has been done on very low piecework rates of pay by women. Fair trade products may have helped to up the rates a fraction and conditions for workers may have improved, but it is still a job for the poor, and sexual exploitation of the women by the male overseers was long viewed as one of the perks of the job.

Sri Lankan female tea pickers in bare feet or open-toed sandals have the highest per capita death rate from snakebite in the world as the snakes sleep beneath the plants and strike out when they are surprised by a picker. The work was so hard that the British tea companies imported tens of thousands of Tamil tea pickers into the majority Singhalese population of Ceylon to do it. The poverty divide that created goes a long way towards explaining the roots of the horrible civil war that cost the lives of so many Sri Lankans in very recent history. A dispute which is still simmering.

As for the environment, the consequences of planting acre after acre of steep hillsides with the same bush aren’t great. Thirty years ago, I travelled through the hills of Sri Lanka on a wonderful train ride and sat on the steps of my trundling carriage looking out in wonder at the neat rows of bushes climbing over hauntingly beautiful hillsides. Yet even as I was enjoying the fantastic view it was impossible to avoid seeing the way the bare brown earth beneath the bushes was being washed down those hillsides. Tea is a hard product to grow on an intensive estate without damaging the ground beneath it.

Sri Lankan tea plantation
Photo: Anjadora

Then there is the obvious problem that if you plant large areas of land with only one crop then it will be attacked by insects and fungi. The sprays that get used will leave a tiny residue in your breakfast cup unless you pay extra for organic tea. Or you could choose to grow your own.

Many people are surprised to hear that it is a product that can be grown in Yorkshire. Five years ago, I bought three tea plants online, but after careful nurturing they are still pretty weedy specimens that won’t be supplying me with any flavoursome beverages any time soon. There are some small commercial plantations in England and at least one in Scotland but the higher wages and costs of growing it locally mean that what is brought to market is very much a premium product.

So, Yorkshire Tea doesn’t come from Yorkshire. It comes from women’s hard labour in poor villages. It is important to be realistic about that just as it is important to pay respect to the producing companies whenever they improve their practices.

Both PG tips and Yorkshire Tea have made genuine efforts to reform their businesses in recent years. That is reflected in the fact that both of those companies have worked hard to get rid of the plastic webs that were contained in every one of their tea bags. Few people would knowingly drink microplastic particles and then dump thousands of tea bags into the environment to add to the thin layer of plastic that is covering the world. You no longer have to do that if you carefully source your purchases from the more responsible companies like these two.

So, I suggest folks raise a cup of their excellent products to both PG tips and Yorkshire Tea for taking a decent stand against racism and trying to improve their environmental practices. But I also suggest that we don’t forget our history and how deeply some of our most traditional British products have been associated with very unpleasant colonial oppression.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the history and ecology of coffee!

  • Andy Brown is a Green Party councillor for Craven district, representing Aire Valley with Lothersdale