- Several large tea companies — including Unilever, Ekaterra and Starbucks — were linked to plantations at which 70 reports of human rights abuses were made in 2022, according to a new report published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a nonprofit organization.
- The abuses were linked to worker compensation, health and safety. Some employees on farms, the nonprofit said, were reprimanded or dismissed for union activity or protesting for better treatment. The reports occurred on farms in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kenya and Uganda.
- The nonprofit — which urged more transparency from producers and less reliance on third-party certification groups — said these reports could represent the “tip of the iceberg,” and there could be many more.
Roughly 1.5 million workers are employed in the tea sector. By not providing exact details about their sourcing and supply chains, tea companies are able to distance themselves from rights violations, the report says.
“Workers have a right to know who is profiting from the tea they are picking — and be able to identify where they must go to voice any grievances,” said Kate Jelly, a labor rights researcher for the organization.
The report said some companies rely too heavily on certification from third-party organizations — namely the Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade — to guarantee human rights protection for workers. According to the nonprofit, companies must do more due diligence for their own supply chains and engage more with stakeholders and employees to drive change.
The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre reached out to the companies linked to the reported abuses. The responses overall “indicated a significant gap between policy commitments and how those are implemented in practice,” the report said.
Unilever, in its response, said it was aware of and addressed reported issues at some of the farms it sources from, but not others. The company said it is in contact with its suppliers to address the incidents, and plans to update its global tea supplier list by the end of the first fiscal quarter of this year.
“Cross-industry work remains critical, including through organisations such as the Ethical Tea Partnership while issues such as the earning of at least a living wage or income in global supply chains ... are also critical to help improve working conditions and raise living standards overall,” Unilever said.
Ekaterra — the venture-capital-owned company made up of many of Unilever’s former tea brands, including Lipton — did not respond to the report’s authors about whether the plantations where the abuse reportedly occurred are still in its supply chain. In an emailed statement to Food Dive, Ekaterra’s global head of external affairs Oleg Piletsky said the company is in contact with Rainforest Alliance about what measures they will implement with regard to the tea farms they source from.
“We expect the tea from these farms to comply with sustainability standards concerning working conditions and fair wages for workers,” Piletsky said.
In a response to the report, Starbucks said its sourcing from the plantations in question is “very low” and that it investigates all allegations of human rights abuses. The company said it is reinforcing with tea suppliers that they must inform the company of any human rights violations, and tracking to confirm the farms it sources from re-certified with Rainforest Alliance.