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Finnwatch: Tea sold in Finland picked by underpaid workers

UTZ and Rainforest Alliance did not benefit plantation workers, said Finnwatch.

teenkerääjiä Intian Assamissa.
Labourers pick tea leaves in Assam state in India. Image: EPA

Low wages in tea production are still an indication that companies are not living up to corporate responsibility demands, says Finnwatch.

The NGO noted in a report published on Wednesday that women working on tea plantations are in a particularly vulnerable position, yet they account for half of the workforce on estates.

Finnwatch interviewed 120 workers on six plantations in India and Sri Lanka which supplied tea to major Finnish tea companies Forsman Tea and Nordqvist, as well as to international firms such as Twinings and Unilever.

"Wages at tea plantations in Assam, India are even lower that the minimum wage in the agricultural sector and the pay earned by workers we interviewed in Sri Lanka was half of the, living wage. The tea consumed in Finland may be picked by someone working for less than two euros a day," Finnwatch researcher Anu Kultalahti said in a statement.

Finnwatch is backed by a group of 11 local development, consumer, labour and environmental organisations.

Nordqvist aiming for more ambitious responsibility goals

Nordqvist was the only tea firm researched that provided Finnwatch with information about Indian and Sri Lankan tea producers in its production chain. According to CEO Riku Nordqvist, the family business aims to improve its operations.

"We have raised our goals. Instead of certifying everything in 2025, we have targeted faster certification. In 2020 nearly 90 percent of Nordqvist output will be certified products and the work will continue from there," the CEO told news agency STT.

All of the estates that Finnwatch analysed were certified by sustainability watchdogs the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade International or UTZ. According to employees interviewed by Finnwatch, the Fairtrade certification was the only one that benefitted plantation communities, as it provided financial support for activities such as professional training of workers' children.

"Our understanding is that both Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade International are doing important work. There would be no tea farming without environmental protection. And without fair trade there would be no tea pickers," Nordqvist said.

He added that the next step for the company would be to join the amfori BSCI international business association, which promotes sustainable business practices among its membership.

Teamaker: Report ignores Finnish firms' contribution

The report concluded that Forsman Tea's purchasing model is based on acquiring tea from plantations or farmers' associations. The company said that it visits suppliers' operations before deliveries begin. Finnwatch said that the firm doesn't have specific principles that govern social responsibility issues. It also resisted providing information about its Sri Lankan suppliers, citing the need to protect trade secrets.

"It’s not possible to get everything in a measurable or written form. That’s because we are a small player," Forsman Tea chief executive Ari Santamäki explained.

He noted that the firm will now pay special attention to ensuring that tea suppliers operate responsibly. He also criticised some aspects of the report, saying that it did not analyse the entire tea production process.

"A major shortcoming in the report is that it places no value on the fact that Finnish suppliers are also processors," he added.

He speculated that the value of the work that Finns do is four times that of the value of tea picking, given the time required and product-specific modifications involved in processing.

"Tea manufactured in Finland is made according to Finnish regulations. That is important for consumers," he declared.

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