Fairtrade tea leaves foretell a better future

Change is brewing on an Indian tea plantation where, for the first time, women have power, writes Kate Hodal.

A white velvet mist is curling over South India’s Nilgiri Mountains when Selvam Natraj’s morning begins. Shuffling to work in her grey and blue argyle socks, brown loafers, burlap skirt, gold nose ring and turquoise cardigan, she cuts a strikingly bright figure among the rolling emerald hills of dense forest and tea plantations, her breath floating before her in the morning air.

Like most of her 1,000 tea-picking colleagues, Selvam, 53, starts work early. Standing just 5ft tall, she is considered the perfect height for “tea plucking”, backbreaking work that requires suspending a large wicker basket from the crown of her head and picking tea, come rain or shine, for eight hours a day, six days a week.

Having done the same job nearly every day for the past 31 years, she has a set routine: slipping a rubber finger glove onto her right thumb and forefinger, with a decisive snap of the wrist she twists the waxy green leaves off the Camellia sinensis plant (a 4ft tea shrub that can live well over 100 years). She tosses handful after handful into the basket behind her, until her daily quota of 17kg of tea can be set aside, and she can go home.

Although Selvam’s work may be exhausting, tea plucking has recently given her opportunities she had never thought possible. For it is here, among the waterfalls and villages of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, at Chamraj Tea Estate, that some of India’s Fairtrade tea is produced.

Since 1994, when the plantation was certified, annual bonuses for the workers have doubled, wages have risen and the Fairtrade premium – a monthly stipend that goes towards community development – has provided a hospital, school, orphanage, pension and retirement scheme.

While much has been made of the economic opportunities that Fairtrade helps to create across the world, too little is said of the social transformations that such economic change can create. But here in the Nilgiris, social change is happening fast.


Tea is big business in these mountains, where terraces of green are dotted with tea-picking women in bright magenta, yellow, purple and chartreuse.

Chamraj boasts 850 hectares of tea across a 20km radius, and a whopping two-thirds of its 1,000-strong workforce are women. Just 10 per cent of its annual 1,200 tonnes of output is Fairtrade (and is sold to British clients such as Twinings, Jacksons of Piccadilly, and Clipper, and to the US, Europe and Asia), but the difference those sales have made is notable.

Tea plantations tend to recruit illiterate married couples and casual labourers as their workers, with the majority from India’s lower social castes. But it is the wives and women of these groups who are fully discovering the positive effects of Fairtrade , through increased financial independence, educational opportunities for their children, and advances in gender equality.

“Most of the women workforce belong to the lowest caste, which means that they are normally shunned by society and not consulted over anything for any matter,” says Chamraj’s director, Titus Gerard Pinto.

Now, however, almost as many women as men sit on Chamraj’s joint committee, elected tea pickers and officers who decide how the Fairtrade premium should be spent, Selvam included.

“I’m very happy taking charge now, either in the committee or at home, whereas before I was more shy,” she says. “Making decisions about things like the pension scheme has been good for me.”

“I’m not looked down upon any more,” adds Madina Rajapapa, 39, a picker who is also on the committee. “I’m respected more at home and in my community, and, even though I am uneducated, being on the committee has empowered me.”

Despite her 20 years picking tea, this is Madina’s first position of authority at the plantation, and she is proud to be one of the four women and five men to sit on the committee for the next three years.

“But these women wouldn’t even normally be allowed into other people’s homes because of India’s caste system,” says Pinto. “So for Selvam and Madina to be elected and sit as equals among not just each other but men, too – with whom, in India’s male-led society, they traditionally haven’t had much of a voice – is in itself a great symbol of respect.”

Fairtrade has also allowed women a greater financial independence from their families. The Fairtrade premium pays a lump sum every year into each worker’s bank account towards a pension and housing retirement scheme, allowing them to buy themselves some land and a house on retirement.

“Old age is a curse in India,” explains Chamraj’s Fairtrade officer, Greaves Henriksen. “Once workers stop earning, they are no longer considered 'valuable’ to their family or society and can become a financial burden instead.”

Samati, a widow who retired after working as a tea picker for 36 years, once worried about the effect her retirement would have on her family, but is now relieved that her pension has made her self-sufficient.

“For six years now, I receive my monthly pension and use it for my daily expenses,” she says. “I’m not dependent on my son or his children to provide for me, and I feel happy about that.”

As women in the Nilgiris continue to take on leadership roles, send their children to school and gain their own financial footings, they are empowering themselves in ways that Indian society – especially in the conservative south – has never before been forced to confront.

“Before Fairtrade, the women workers here had almost no power at home,” explains Pinto.

“The transformation since has been remarkable. Female feticide was unfortunately quite common in this region, but now girls are seen as has having a valuable economic role to play in society. Some women here feel so empowered that they’re choosing to leave their husbands. Now that they have the promise of their own money and a house of their own, they’re wondering what good the man is for.”

That women like Selvam and Madina even feel they have the right to consider such an option is not only a testament to their own quest for self-development, but a nod to the power of Fairtrade as well.

Original Story here