Every day, the British public consumes roughly 100 million cups of tea which amounts to 36 billion cups a year. Over the last 150 years or so, tea drinking has become an integral part of British culture, with brands such as Twinings, Yorkshire Tea, Tetley and Typhoo establishing themselves as household names. But behind every cup, there is an ongoing legacy of exploitation.


How it all began

This obsession with tea across the United Kingdom began in the 19th century, as British colonies were established in India, Sri Lanka and East Africa. The connection between colonialism and the millions of tea bags that line British supermarket shelves is no secret, but the continued exploitation of colonial legacies by household tea companies remains largely unknown or muted.

Many of the most recognisable tea brands can trace their beginnings back to the 19th century, taking advantage of the perfect tea-growing conditions of British colonies in South Asia. In particular, the colony of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, was an ideal location for tea production due to the tropical climate of the island’s central highlands. Tyhpoo first started its operations in Sri Lanka in 1909 when its founder, John Sumner, began to buy and grow tea at source. Nineteen years earlier, Lipton began tea production in the colony, as Thomas Lipton established the Dambatenne plantation which continues to operate today.

As the tea industry in Sri Lanka expanded dramatically, a large workforce was required to keep up with the new levels of production. British governors turned to the south of India for such workers, in particular the Tamil population. These workers were ultimately recruited into a system that paid little and tied them to work at plantations. This, coupled with the fact that most would arrive in Sri Lanka burdened with large amounts of debt., sowed the seeds of exploitation. Despite slavery having been abolished throughout the British Empire at this time, plantation owners sought to keep their workers within a similar but legal position of forced labour.

The exploitative conditions, which plantation workers had to endure, were a direct product of colonial rule. And as with many components of colonialism, they failed to come to an end after independence. When Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948, Indian Tamils working on these plantations became legally defined as ‘temporary immigrants’ and were denied citizenship up until the 1980s. Despite finally gaining citizenship status, this demographic remains amongst the most marginalised in Sri Lanka. Many stay trapped in poverty, with the descendants of the first Tamil migrants continuing to work on the tea plantations. In order to earn a basic daily wage of 700 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR), equivalent to roughly £2.60, workers must collect at least 40 pounds of tea leaves — enough tea to make at least 6,400 cups

Exploiting every cup of tea

Major tea brands, such as Typhoo and Lipton, continue to source their tea from Sri Lanka’s plantations. Thomas Lipton, the company’s founder, established Dambatenne Tea Factory in 1890 which continues to function today. Workers there continue to earn a paltry 700-rupee wage but have been desperately pushing for an increase to 1,000 rupees — a move that would destroy the tea industry, according to Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs).

So here we have it. An industry that colonialism helped flourish continues to underpay its workers in the name of profit. If an increase of £1.20 to the daily wage would ruin such an industry, perhaps either the consumer or the major tea companies should make a financial sacrifice.

India

The issue of poor working conditions is not only a problem for Sri Lankan plantations. It concerns India too. A 2015 BBC investigation found that on a number of plantations across northeast India, many workers were suffering from malnutrition. Poor wages had left them underfed and living in ‘broken houses with terrible sanitation’, it was reported. Such plantations were being used by tea brands such as PG Tips, Lipton and Tetley to source their tea products. A study conducted in the year prior to the BBC’s investigation by Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, concluded that the inhumane and abusive conditions found on plantations were ‘endemic throughout the industry’.

Brands Respond

In response to various reports that highlighted the continued abuse of tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka and India, many major brands have since published a list of plantations from which their tea is sourced. Between June 2018 and April 2019, Twinings, Yorkshire Tea, Typhoo, PG Tips and Lipton had all published such a list. The move was pushed by British charity Traidcraft Exchange, which launched the campaign: ‘Who picked my tea?’, as well as an investigation that found seriously inadequate living conditions and wages on Indian plantations. 

However, this improvement in transparency is just one of the first steps to ensuring a fairer deal for the hundreds of thousands of tea plantation workers. Nick Knightley, of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), suggested that brands need to put pressure on suppliers, allowing workers to unionise and strive for better working and living conditions.

In May 2021, a wage increase of 50 Rupees (Rs) for tea workers in Assam, India, was withdrawn with promises to later increase the minimum daily wage from 167 Rs to 205 Rs. However, a study conducted by Oxfam India found that many workers were still not receiving the 205-rupee wage and that tea workers in Assam were earning less than a quarter of the proposed living wage of 884 rupees.

150 years and counting

Over the past 150 years, the British public has been able to enjoy their morning cup of tea at the expense of those who toil for little remuneration. The poor living and working conditions that colonialism fostered continue to this day. Resultantly, Brits enjoy their morning cuppa over breakfast and major tea brands receive a healthy income from our tea consumption. All the while, Indian and Sri Lankan workers struggle to feed their families.

It’s telling that to this day, a statue of Thomas Lipton sits above the fields of the Dambatenne plantation. Silently, he observes the hundreds of workers who continue to tirelessly harvest tea below him in a horrible metaphor for their ongoing oppression.