Trouble brewing: The Need for Transparency in Tea Supply Chains

Trouble brewing: The Need for Transparency in Tea Supply Chains

Trouble brewing: The Need for Transparency in Tea Supply Chains

Executive summary

13 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. 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.

We 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. 17/65 companies disclosed details of their tea supply chain information, including Twinings, Tetley, Bettys & Taylors, Ecotone (Clipper) as well as supermarkets like M&S and Tesco Companies which failed to disclose include Teapigs, Sainsburys, Lidl and Jacobs Douwe Egberts 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 Trouble brewing: the need for transparency in tea supply chains November 2021 3

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.

“ For many years the IUF’s work to improve conditions on tea plantations was hampered by lack of transparency about source plantations. The BHRRC Tea Transparency Tracker is a real breakthrough, an important tool that will help us hold packers to account for the working conditions on the plantations supplying to them. The Tracker builds on work done by the UK NGO Traidcraft to pressure UK tea companies to provide their supplier lists. It was a significant step forward that the Tracker builds on.” Sue Longley, General Secretary, IUF

Tea companies can capture close to 90%1 of the value of tea, while tea workers receive just 1-2%,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. Our research has shown transparency is urgent and immediately possible, and is a necessary first step to addressing persistent inequalities and abuses in tea supply chains. Trouble brewing: The need for transparency in tea supply chains December 2021 4 1.


The tea industry employs approximately 13 million workers in 48 countries worldwide with a global retail value of more than USD 50 billion. It is India’s second largest employer and provides jobs for over 3.5 million people. There are many more invisibly employed or indirectly dependent on tea cultivation, particularly where working families live and work on large plantations, and the sector is considered high risk due to the prevalence of forced and child labour. Women constitute anywhere between 30-60% of the total workforce engaged in tea production and are paid less than men within the sector. By controlling all aspects of workers’ lives on plantations, from housing to education and access to basic services like water and sanitation, plantation owners are able to withhold wages on any pretext and create conditions of indebtedness and bondage.

Tea plantation workers face poverty wage levels, endemic sexual violence and harassment, dangerous living and working conditions and a high incidence of forced labour, yet there has been little change at the sectoral level in spite of the dominance of well-resourced multinational corporations in the sector.

The tea industry is characterised by a high degree of concentrated corporate power and ownership, with an estimated 85% of global tea production sold by multinational corporations which capture the lion’s share of profits due to the structure of the tea supply chain. Workers receive just 1-2% of the price of the tea, while retailers capture between 41-59%3 of the price consumers pay. Given the tea industry is highly vertically integrated compared with coffee or cocoa value chains, and some blenders and traders are also retailers (Typhoo, Bettys and Taylors and Twinings, among others), the value captured by companies which blend and sell directly to consumers can be nearly 90% of the price charged to the consumer. If they also own their own plantations this could reach 96% of the total value. Very few supply chains have similar levels of inequality in wage-share. According to one report, supermarkets and tea brands in the United States capture nearly 93% of the price consumers pay for black tea bags.4

The top four tea companies in the UK together account for more than 60% of total sales in the country5 with Unilever/ekaterra* (PG Tips, Lipton, Pukka etc.) and Tetley also dominating global tea sales. This translates to an extraordinary level of influence over other actors in the chain, including logistics companies, suppliers and intermediaries. 6 Unilever/ekaterra*, the world’s biggest tea company, buys 10% of the world’s black tea alone. 7 The tea industry in its current form is centuries-old, deeply embedded in a history of colonial profiteering and violence, where those affected by these violent practices are still seeking reparations.8 The buying side of the chain is highly concentrated, with few players and large volumes. 9 Some of the world’s biggest companies are making billions from tea sales, while the workers labouring under harsh working conditions to pick the tea we drink are barely making ends meet. This is also evident in how the supply chain is organised – blending, packaging and marketing/retailing are the most profitable parts of the chain, and largely conducted in the buying countries, while the least lucrative parts of the chain, i.e. growing and primary production, happen in production countries,10 with some exceptions. 11

Tea companies not only outsource production, they also outsource human rights due diligence, using certification bodies to monitor compliance with basic human rights on the plantations – even while certification bodies themselves insist that certification is not a substitute for human rights due diligence. Yet evading accountability for harms to supply chain workers will become increasingly difficult. Recent drives for mandatory human rights due diligence legislation will enshrine in law the direct responsibility companies have to workers in their supply chains and, critically, will guarantee access to remedy when worker rights have been violated.

Marking International Tea Day this year, the Director-General of the FAO called for greater transparency in the sector to ensure sustainable practices throughout the tea supply chain. Publishing these lists is a necessary first step towards full accountability and liability for rights violations in tea value chains. Multiple benefits emerge from so doing: workers are provided a powerful tool to hold companies to account and assert their rights, consumers know where their tea is produced, and brands and retailers can unite to better understand the risks of labour abuses in their own supply chain and remediate them when identified.

Of the 65 companies we invited to participate, 17 companies (26%) disclosed in the template provided, allowing the establishment of the first Tea Transparency Tracker with a total of 3,177 bought-leaf factories and estates listed.

Read full report here.