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how fair is fair trade?

The tormented fingers of a tea picker in Sri Lanka
"Pluck all the leaves! Don't leave any! If you don't manage ten kilos before lunch, you'll not get your salary!" said the field supervisor in this field in Uva, Sri Lanka
Photo: Knut-Erik Helle / justworldphoto.org

Shantile, 23, who's been picking tea leaves in a Fair Trade tea estate in Sri Lanka for 8 yrs, is paid $1.1 a day, when there is work(1). Work today will be difficult. It's been drizzling. The wet leaf stalks become a lot more slippery and tougher to snap. The skin on the side of the index finger and the tip of the thumb hurts deeper with every pluck. The leaves a lot heavier, and the slimy ground simply sinks away much of the strength of one's foothold. The blood sucking leaches, a lot more active in wet seasons, are only annoying to Shantile and her teammates, cause they have grown up with them. It's the poisonous snakes that they dread. She is too occupied looking for the new leaves now anyway; to fulfill her daily quota of 20 kilo, after deducting the weight of the extra rain water on the tealeaves. That is about two chest-high sackfuls.

"My greatest wish is that my grandchildren won't suffer as we do", said Sivanthalingam Vairai, who has been a picker for 25 years.

Shantile, 22, has already been plucking tealeaves here for 8 years
Shantile, 23, who's been picking tea leaves in a Fair Trade tea estate in Sri Lanka for 8 yrs, is paid $1.1 a day, when there is work.
Photo: Knut-Erik Helle / justworldphoto.org

Although we would not want to believe it, the caste system in this part of the world is still alive; as a descendent of Nadu Tamils who came as migrant workers, and growing up with little education, Shantile or her fellows does not have a lot of options working in any other business in any other capacity. It's all giant tea estates around here anyway.

Her counterparts in non-Fair Trade neighbouring tea-estates are getting the same salary, facing the same dilemma. Only that a tiny fund in Shantile's estate is administered by some worker representative for small benefits for the workers, such as buying a computer for themselves to go on the internet to learn something, or giving out a loan for a small wedding.

So much for Fair Trade.

Xiao Fen in Wuyi, Fujian tells another story on this foggy morning. "There were ten brothers and sisters in our family. The fields that we were responsible for in these mountains did not grow much other than these tea bushes. We could not plant rice here. We were extremely poor and had not much to eat." Every time I see her she would treat me to a different kind of wild vegetable (that looks more like some wild grass) or mushroom or such thing, in addition to all the other normal dishes. "It has been a big difference since the (economic) reform(2), cause we were allowed to sell the tea we make directly to the market. Now there is no turning back."

Ten to twelve women have now gathered at the entrance… (continues on next page)



1 Content and photos related to the Sri Lanka portion of this story extracted from "The Dirty Secret Of Ceylon Tea" by Knut-Erik Helle, http://keh.nu/Articles/the-dirty-secret-of-ceylon-tea.html. Quotation and photo use by written permission of the author.

2 In the early 1980's, the wake of a series of economic reforms in Mainland China, farmers were assigned plots of land divided from what used to be the commune's land. They began to take over responsibility and control of the products of this land as long as they fulfill a set "tax" quota. Wikipedia has some good overall account of this part of history at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_economic_reform

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