New tea programme Sri Lanka looks beyond certification

A new three year tea programme with Douwe Egberts Foundation in Sri Lanka aims to certify estates and small-scale farmers against the Utz certification code and improve the working and living conditions of women workers in particular.

The tea improvement programme (TIP) of the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), supported by DE Foundation, laid the foundation for this new tea programme by Solidaridad.

Social challenges for workers and smallholders

Tea is the third most important export crop for the Sri Lankan economy. Due the labour intensive picking of tea leaves, about 250,000 workers are employed by tea estates in the higher mountainous regions, and a further 400,000 smallholders produce tea in middle and low grown areas. Smallholders in the country have an average of one hectare of land and an annual production of 2500 kilograms of fresh tea leafs.

Ranjan Circar, Solidaridad’s global tea programme coordinator, says that through Utz certification some of the social challenges in the sector (such as a lack of proper facilities among others for health and child care) can be resolved.
“However, more complex issues like the need for living wages, tackling of alcoholism and fair working conditions need a strategy beyond certification. Solidaridad will address these challenges, through working with relevant local stakeholders in the tea sector. This programme is a valuable new pillar of the global tea programme that includes programmes in India, China, Indonesia and East Africa,” explains Circar.

Support for 7,000 workers and 400 farmers

Apart from addressing the working conditions for 7,000 workers at nine different estates, the programme also aims to include 400 smallholder tea producers to improve their agricultural practices and provide them better linkages to factories.Through producer support and Utz certification, Solidaridad and DE Foundation aim to improve the income of the small-scale tea producers and link them to tea estates to sell their product. The Utz certification standard is considered as a tool for improvement in the tea sector. D.E. MASTER BLENDERS 1753 intends to procure Utz certified tea from the estates and smallholders in this programme within the upcoming 1-3 years.

Strengthening the position of smallholders and plantation workers

Smallholders who own their land have rights to access subsidized fertilizers and free technical support from the government. Some areas of improvement have been identified and Solidaridad plans to support these farmers in managing their farms more efficiently, improve production and create more transparency in the trade with buying factories.

Sri Lankan tea is known for its high quality grades and in the higher tea areas referred to as the ‘champagne of the teas.’ However, the social and labour conditions of workers in the tea estates remain challenging. Due to the high cost of production and challenges in productivity, estate management face constraints to invest in the development of the workers in these estates.

Focus on women workers

Women workers on the estates are the backbone of the tea industry. They represent more than 50% of the total work force and are mainly involved in tea harvesting. In contrast to this reality, all management positions are nonetheless dominated by men. Upward mobility was denied to the women workers including the right to participate in the trade unions. Although the Sri Lankan government has developed legislation on workers’ rights in accordance with International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, women workers’ still face uncertainty and difficult labour conditions.However, not all of these challenges can be addressed through certification.

Strong local partnerships

The Institute for Social Development (ISD) is one of the main implementers of the training programmes for the workers and smallholders in this project. Besides providing technical support they have a long record in advocacy for workers’ rights and lobby with key tea stakeholders. Solidaridad believes that within its strategy beyond certification the initiative developed by ISD can be part of the solution to address the labour challenges in the sector.