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Need for transparency in tea supply chains

Thirteen million workers who toil on tea plantations have suffered from endemic human rights abuses while the tea companies they pick for - some of the world’s largest and most profitable companies - have evaded responsibility for their supply chain workers and kept their supply chains hidden. Without supply chain transparency or adequate human rights due diligence processes, tea workers have been unable to hold companies to account when rights abuses occur. 3,177 facilities are now listed on the world’s first Tea Transparency Tracker, where brands and retailers are linked directly to the factories and estates they source from.

Unlike other sectors, the tea industry has a high degree of visibility over supply chains Lead brands and retailers know where their tea comes from, but until now, haven’t made the information public. Without this information, workers don’t know where the tea they pick goes and efforts towards remediation for abuses from forced labour to gender-based violence stop at the estate instead of going up the chain to where most of the value lies.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre sought to address this gap by approaching 65 major companies with a request for them to disclose their supply chain details to be held centrally in the first Tea Transparency Tracker. The 17 companies which disclosed ranged from large multinational corporations and supermarkets to small family-owned companies sourcing just a few tonnes of tea, making it clear the only thing stopping companies from being transparent was their own commitment and willingness. Only 10 companies fully disclosed and just seven committed to full transparency in the future.

BHRRC also surveyed companies to understand how they approached human rights due diligence, with most companies that responded having a range of policies designed to protect worker rights. But hidden supply chains leave workers and rights-advocates in the dark – unable to independently verify if or how policies are being implemented until brands and retailers disclose where they source their tea.

With legal cases mounting in courts for serious rights abuses and media exposés continuing, companies evade responsibility by insisting workers don’t need to know where the tea they pick goes, even though this means they have no means of knowing the brands’ standards for the treatment of workers in their supply chains. At the same time, tea brands also present themselves as ethical to their consumers, using certification or membership of ethically-oriented industry associations as a substitute for transparency and due diligence.

Tea companies can capture close to 90% of the value of tea, while tea workers receive just 1-2%, with most earning well below a survivable living wage. Companies have the power to change this extraordinary inequality of power and wealth in supply chains by taking the first step and disclosing who picks their tea. The voluntary nature of supply chain disclosure and the governance gap for the treatment of workers that has persisted is being increasingly challenged by workers and actively being responded to by States. From the increased use of import bans on goods produced with forced labour through the US Tariff Act to the imminent release of an EU mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence law, the tea sector is currently ill-equipped to comply with obligations if companies continue resisting even the most basic request for transparency.

Hiding supply chain information keeps dangerous and exploitative working conditions concealed and denies workers access to remedy or justice. It cements the inequality of power on estates by denying workers and their organisations the opportunity to raise violations of brands’ codes of conduct for workers’ protection with the brands themselves.

Key Findings 🍃 Thirty-six of the 65 companies approached did not respond, including Finlays, Sainsburys, Teapigs and Walmart.

🍃 Of the 29 companies that engaged, 18 fully or partially disclosed their list of sourcing estates or bought-leaf factories.

🍃 The 10 that fully disclosed were Bettys and Taylors, Jenier Limited, Twinings, Ringtons, Tesco, Yogi Tea, East West Tea company, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons and Plus (Superunie).

🍃 Ahmad Tea, Typhoo, Tetley, Unilever/ekaterra*, Starbucks Teavana, Teasup and Ecotone (Clipper) partially disclosed information on their supplier facilities.

🍃 Three companies shared their list of intermediary companies (through which they source their tea) without further information – Stick & Lembke, Whittard of Chelsea and Bigelow.

Tea picking at Munnar Tea Plantation. Copyright: Jon Brew (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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