Women in Tea
by Lalith Paranavitana

The Coffee Price Crisis

by Kenneth Davids

The FUN-dametals of Office Coffee
by Kyle A. Lord

What's Brewin' — New Coffee News

The Women Behind The Cup That Cheers.

Most Tea parties are attended by women and it is always a woman at the table who is honored with the duty of pouring the tea. It is a common notion that the custom of Tea is a woman thing! However, Women are involved in a much more important role in the Tea manufacturing process.

In the fields and factories of most major Tea producing countries like Sri Lanka (Ceylon), India and China, women play a very demanding role in the entire production process. Making good Tea requires a great deal of human skill. It starts from harvesting the leaf, which is a very labor intensive process. Most of the harvesting is done by women who have acquired the skill at coordinating their nimble fingers through years of experience of harvesting only the tender leaves and rejecting the mature leaves. Because the condition of the leaves is determined by growth factors in that cycle, what is available for harvesting may not be all tender leaves. Therefore an experienced picker knows what should be harvested and what needs to be picked and discarded so as not to spoil the quality of Tea. At the same time, the pickers must be careful not to pick buds, which are not yet ready for harvesting. Mature leaves that have passed the period of prime flavor must be picked and discarded. These split second decisions are only acquired through years of training. Even though productivity is low during this training period, it is regarded as an investment for the future by the management. Pickers who have the ability to pick large quantities of good leaf are an asset to the management, and simultaneously, their earnings would be higher than inexperienced pickers. Above certain norms that are required for the daily wage, incentive payments are made for higher productivity. Skilled Tea pickers are trained in the art of discriminate harvesting. Unskilled pickers can cause the yields on tea estates to decrease and also adversely effect the quality of tea.Tea picking is strenuous work, as the picker has to carry a basket into which she would collect the leaf. When the basket gets full and heavy, the leaf is weighed and collected and taken to the factory for processing. Women have to pick the tea bushes in steep terrain, and find their way through rows of Tea bushes. Tea branches intertwine and form, what appears from far, a "carpet"of green. Women wear the traditional saree dress to work, but to prevent from getting torn by branches, they wear a plastic apron from waist down. It is a colorful sight when a group of women are picking tea.

Factory work which involves the process of Withering, Rolling, Fermenting, Drying, Sifting (or Grading) and Packing also requires certain skills that women learn. However,traditionally, operating rollers and drying machinery has been a man's job. Likewise field work, such as removal of weeds, fertilizer application, pruning, soil conservation, new planting, replanting, are more physically demanding and require the strength of a man.

Harvesting on Tea Estates usually commences around 7.00 AM and ends by 4.00 PM with an hour break for lunch. Work may proceed after 4.00 PM if there is an abundance of leaf to be harvested, making it worthwhile for the pickers as well as management. These periods of high productivity benefits both management and workers. On the contrary, periods of slow growth resulting from a prolonged drought or excessive rainfall, effects production and the earning potential of Tea pickers.

Child care is provided by Management and trained elderly women are entrusted with these duties. Since, worker housing (provided free of rent as an amenity) is available on the estate, women do not have to walk long distances to work. Child care facilities are usually constructed close to clusters of living quarters, making it easy for workers to leave their children before they go to work. Child care is very closely monitored by Management to ensure that quality service is provided.

Estate schools which come under the Department of Education, are situated within the estate and affords primary education in some estates and even secondary education in larger estates. Women get involved in PTA activities as in many schools elsewhere.
Maternity wards are available on every estate, manned by a qualified midwife, and affording the opportunity of having a safe confinement. Pre natal and post natal care is a priority. Pregnant women are also entitled to two weeks fully paid maternity leave before and four weeks after confinement. In the event of any complications, the Management provides transportation to the nearest hospital.

Nursing mothers are given time out from work to return home to feed their babies and they are also entitled to return home one hour early at the end of the day.

Women's role in Trade Union activity on the estates have brought about better working relationships between Management and workers and quite unlike the days of the feudal system of British colonialism, worker participation in management is encouraged. Very strict Labor laws are in force, partly due to the strength of Trade union activity.

The cost of producing Tea is increasing every year. Most Tea estates are faced with the dilemma of controlling escalating costs. They have to contend with not only direct expenses but indirect expenses such as worker housing, social and medical benefits etc. The average sale price of Tea is still very low and can hardly sustain the viability of estates. It continues to be the single most important factor, particularly effecting the welfare of women and workers in general. The difference in the selling price of Tea at estate level and the price consumers have to pay in Western countries is disproportionate. One wonders who really makes the money in this business. There are too many middlemen from brokers in producing countries, shipping agents, insurance companies, importers, import brokers, banks, distributors and retailers, to the final consumer, the housewife. The portion of the profits by middlemen is what finally determines the sale price at estate level which is squeezed to keep tea prices stable at consumer level.

Global increase in tea consumption which is a result of population increases in major tea consuming countries such as India, China, Pakistan and the Middle East, has fueled marginal price increases. However, consumer demand in the West has not been one of the causes. It is ironic, that while we enjoy the great flavor and benefits of a cup of good tea in the relative comfort of our homes, women are in the tea fields broiling under the tropical sun or they are drenched in the monsoonal rains, working for a small wage. Managers of estates are trying their utmost to avert bankruptcy so as not to lay off workers. The anomaly in profit distribution has never been so evident as in the Tea industry. The world's cheapest beverage is Tea and yet it holds traditions and customs that have been embraced for centuries. Isn't it time that the workers and producers also have a stake in the distribution of profits from this Liquid Gold?

About the Author - Lalith Paranavitana was involved in the Tea industry in Sri Lanka for 19 years from 1970 to 1989. At the time he migrated to the US, he was a Director of the Sri Lanka State Plantations (Tea) Corporation. He is currently the owner of Empire Tea Services which imports and distributes Ceylon Tea, has a Tea mail order service, and owns a Tea Room in Columbus, Indiana.


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