Unilever’s Teas are “Slave-Free”, Will Others Follow?

Woman picking tea leaves at a tea plantation. (Getty Images/stellalevi)

Unilever’s announcement that their teas are “slave-free” follows along campaign to make the world’s largest tea supply chain transparent. Lastyear, Unilever and Nestlé became the first two food companies to declare theirsources of palm oil slave-free. This was a result of conversations aroundsustainability in palm oil production and to control deforestation.

Traidcraft Exchange isa not-for-profit body that works for fair trade and has campaigned for teatraceability for some time now. In 2018, they launched “Who picked my tea?” acampaign calling the six major UK tea brands – Unilever, Typhoo, Twinings,Yorkshire Tea, Tata (Tetley) and Clipper Teas – to publish the list of estatesin Assam (India) that they source tea.

Assam, the largest tea producing region in India suffers in reputation for poor labor policies documented by media and academics in a 2018 investigation by Sheffield University. The investigation revealed that some Indian tea plantations stamped “slavery-free” were abusing and underpaying their workers. Labor conditions at several of the 22 gardens in Assam and Kerala had been certified as acceptable by Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and Trustea. Several were also members of the Ethical Tea Partnership a not-for-profit membership organization of tea producers and tea companies to improve the sustainability of the tea industry.

Twinings was the first brand to come forward with a listof its suppliers offering the assurance that all its suppliers were third-partycertified. They were followed by Bettys & Taylors Group, owners of Yorkshire Tea, thefirst “big brand” to publish their supplier list. Theothers followed suit.

Unilever has since extended this degree of traceability beyond Assam.In September this year, the conglomerate published its global supplier list fortea, a list that spans 21 countries including China, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.Unilever’s executive vice president for beverages, MickVan Ettinger, was quoted as saying, “Withtransparency comes transformation.”

The UN estimates around 25 million people to be “trapped in forcedlabor”. The practice extends across manufacturing industries. The UN has set a goal to end modern-dayslavery by 2030. The onus is on consumers to demand where the products theybuy originate, by insisting producers demonstrated their suppliers ensure acceptableworking conditions.

With place of origin and source playing a big part inbrand marketing, consumers increasingly demand this transparency. Unilever’smove towards slave-free tea is one that should find adoption by other brands.It is indeed a step forward for brands and offers a sound talking point. Butwhat does it really mean for the worker on the ground, who may not be enjoyingtheir due rights? How can they benefit from this open access to knowledge andinformation? 

Traidcraft’s policy adviser, Tom Wills, was quoted assaying, "Unilever's decision to publish its global supplierlist gives the women who pick the tea we drink more power to push for betterpay and conditions, wherever they work. Making the supplier listpublic means tea workers can complain directly to a global brand when standardsfall short of what is being advertised to western consumers.”

Certification bodies such as Rainforest Alliance/UTZ address the working and living conditions of tea garden workers, ensuring that human rights and obligations to workers are protected. In India, Unilever was part of the group that introduced Trustea, a tea quality certification customized for India that includes workers’ rights and working environment among its zero-tolerance criteria.

Globally manufacturers are stepping up towardseradicating slave-workers. In 2015, The Thomson Reuters Foundation launched theStop Slaveryaward to acknowledge companies seeking to eradicate slave conditions and clean up their own supply chains. Modernslavery is defined as people “coercedinto working through force or fraud at no pay beyond subsistence. All types ofslavery – including sex trafficking, debt bondage, domestic servitude, andforced labor – rely on violence or the threat of violence.” Previouswinners include Unilever and Apple, Intel, and Adidas.

Reuters observed that as large businesses across thewestern world take the lead to clean up their sources of raw material, they arebringing a much-needed shift in the fight against modern slavery. What isneeded now is to ensure that the workers on the gardens are made aware of theirrights, and empowered to resist and fight abuse, and have access to support fortheir justice.

Sources: Reuters, Unilever, WorldEconomic Forum, Traidcraft, UnitedNations