Over the last 15 years the Ethical Tea Partnership has been behind all manner of projects, helping to improve the lives of people working on tea estates.

Today we announce our latest initiative, without doubt one of the most challenging we have ever undertaken but where the prize of bringing about long term sustainable change makes the effort all worthwhile!

With Oxfam we have led a diverse group of organisations including tea companies, non- governmental organisations (NGOs) and certification organisations such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certified, in a project that looks at the wages earned by the people who grow and pick our tea and also at how these wages are set.

NGOs have been raising concerns about wage levels for some time, somewhat to the bemusement of companies who have been paying for social audits for many years, which have not been indicating non-compliance on wages. They are also aware that plantation owners are required to provide a whole range of in-kind benefits from firewood to housing and medical care, or many of which would normally be the responsibility of government.

Early in my career I was involved in one of the first business-NGO collaborations which focused on the paper industry and whether it was contributing to rainforest destruction. This was at a time when environmental campaigners with inflatable chainsaws were picketing well-known makers of wood products. One of the things that really struck me then was how companies and NGOs were talking past each other, and I saw elements of this when I took on the job of running the ETP four years ago.

In one of the early meetings to get this project off the ground, I managed to offend most people in the room by saying I thought the debate on wages was “emotive and ill-informed”. While possibly not the most judicious choice of words, it was certainly true there was very little constructive engagement between different groups on this topic.

So the approach with this project has been different. Using our convening power we were able to engage a range of organisations with different roles in the tea supply chain. They agreed how we could collect the information we needed in a robust, transparent and standardised manner, and commissioned an independent assessment of worker’s pay and benefits on plantations in Malawi, Indonesia and Assam.

The outcomes of the study are reported in Understanding Wage Issues in the Tea Industry, which is published today by us and Oxfam.

The study found that despite meeting legal minimum wage requirements, the combined value of tea pickers’ pay and benefits in Malawi is around average for the country but only about half the World Bank’s poverty line income of $2 per person per day. In Assam, India, tea pickers earn just above the World Bank poverty line and under the average Indian wage. In West Java, Indonesia, pickers’ incomes are well above the poverty line but only a quarter of what the average Indonesian earns.

And the researchers identified a number of complex long standing factors that keep wages at low levels, which are often less than what is needed to cover basic household needs. A key problem is that pay is set by national or local governments or tea associations, so every producer in a region pays the same wages regardless of their productivity and any certification the producer has. Other issues uncovered include the importance of in-kind benefits such as housing, the wide variation in the quality and take up of these benefits, and the minimal influence women were able to exert on pay negotiations.

So to some extent everyone was right – wages are legal but they are low. In-kind benefits are very important and often mandated by law – and that raises issues for both producers and workers. And the structure and wage-setting processes of the tea industry limit the leverage individual companies and certification organisations have to influence change, making solutions difficult to determine.

These are challenging findings for all of us and it would be easy to be depressed. But actually, I am optimistic. Because, unlike before, the stakeholders in this new coalition have embraced the findings and now want to push on. They have experience and influence in different areas and want to use it to encourage other organisations to join the effort and help put together practical projects that really will help tackle wage and poverty issues in tea communities.

This willingness to work together is just so important because what we gained from the study aside from the various insights into wage levels was an understanding of just how complex, sensitive and intertwined the barriers to progress are, meaning that no one organisation can ‘go it alone’. Organisations at every stage of the supply chain need to be involved, really involved, if we are going to break down these barriers and tackle poverty in tea communities. They need to enter into new and perhaps hitherto unthinkable collaborations, challenge processes and conventions that have existed for years – and many other uncomfortable things besides!

I do not in any way underestimate how difficult this will be for everyone involved. I am also very aware that engagement with tea producers and associations and other stakeholders in tea producing countries on this issue is at an early stage. It is critical going forward that we, a bunch of ‘outsiders’, do not keep talking to ourselves or do things that undermine national processes and approaches.

But there are a couple of points I am very sure about. From now on the discussions in these countries will be much better informed and less emotive and that gives us all a firmer foundation from which to develop solutions.

I am very committed to using the experience we have at the ETP in bringing people together to tackle really big issues. We will do all we can to make sure the right organisations are working together to make the real and sustainable difference that we want to see and which we all know is needed.