We would not join the Fair Trade movement as Dilmah tea goes far beyond Fair Trade.
Fair Trade does not address the fundamental weakness of the tea industry. Although well intentioned, in the case of tea, Fair Trade perpetuates the outdated colonial model of raw material being imported into and packaged in the UK, where all the significant branding profits lie.
Only a small fraction of the Fair Trade premium charged to consumers for tea is paid to the grower, typically only 7% of the shelf price finds its way back as the total payment for tea supplied.
Dilmah returns a minimum of 15% of pre-tax profits to growers, distributed via the MJF Foundation (see www.mjffoundation.org). This has a far greater impact on the tea growers and the Ceylon Tea Industry than Fair Trade. MJF Foundation funds are used to ensure, among other things, child nutrition, midday meals, educational scholarships, hospitals and school facilities as standard provisions for the Dilmah workforce.
Fair Trade is also not about quality, it’s a seal of approval to sell at a premium price appealing to consumer consciences. Any new brand wanting to sell an average quality product at a premium price can apply for the Fair Trade mark and start a “virtual marketing” firm that outsources tea packaging and sourcing of the tea to other UK firms.
This means there might be up to 5 or 6 middlemen between the grower and the retailer with very little invested back to the tea growers. Dilmah is the antithesis of this model.
Dilmah Tea is entirely packaged and branded in Sri Lanka without middlemen in the West. In any industry, the fairest form of trade is for the producer to offer their product to consumers using as few intermediaries as possible. In the case of Ceylon Tea, gathering and retaining the product’s value at origin benefits the grower in the form of a fair price for a product that requires effort, expertise and dedication to produce; it benefits the tea industry, which is ailing from years of exploitation and deprivation of a fair share of the revenue from the sale of its produce; and, in our case, it benefits the under-developed economy of Sri Lanka. Importantly, it also benefits the consumer in presenting a better quality tea.
Much of the Fair Trade movement focuses on worker conditions and moving towards an acceptable quality of life for workers. In Sri Lanka, standards in tea garden worker conditions have been legally enforced for over one hundred years as it is the most established global tea producer.
Fair Trade is a relatively recent development in the West and has now become a brand in its own right.
In the last thirty years, multinational brands have switched the origin of their tea from Sri Lanka/Ceylon to cheaper sources in Africa to save costs. In Africa, tea growing is a more recent phenomenon and is largely Smallholder/Cooperative based.
The Fair Trade scheme is designed largely for Cooperatives and Small Holders, which are more common in Africa than in Sri Lanka.The assurances that Fair Trade holds out to consumers on worker welfare are all minimum standards that are enforced by law in Sri Lanka.
Fair Trade states that it assures worker representation, ensures unionization, overtime, no child labour etc. Meanwhile, these stipulations are all mandated by law in Sri Lanka and stringently adhered to. We have a very strong, politically influential labour union in Sri Lanka which empowers workers.
As for The Ethical Tea Partnership that the major brands like Twinings, Yorkshire Tea etc. joined in response to Fair Trade; the ETP writes to growers with a long questionnaire stating criteria that must be adhered to in order to trade with them. When the growers enquire if fairer prices will be paid to enable improvements, they are informed that if they don’t comply they won’t buy their tea. Still, the ETP logo appears on packs assuring consumers that the brands are doing their bit! Very little Ceylon Tea is purchased by UK brands now due to its relatively high cost so the impact of any scheme would at best be negligible.
Dilmah Tea is entirely produced in Sri Lanka. Profits are retained in Sri Lanka and are reinvested to improve living standards among tea estate workers and the community at large through the MJF Foundation.
A simple but inescapable fact is that every product should be fairly traded. Eliminating middlemen and giving the producer access to markets would result in ethical and fairly traded products being offered to consumers without any premium and with the right quality. In eliminating the middleman, Dilmah Tea can offer consumers a better quality product, benefit the growers, their industry and its future and the economy of Sri Lanka.
Wages in the tea plantations are agreed through a consultative process amongst major unions representing the workers together with representatives of tea estates, both companies and smallholders. The collective agreement that is the outcome is honoured by all tea companies by law. Wages are not determined individually. The tea plantations of Sri Lanka have specific circumstances connected to the fact that each has a sizeable population of residents who require education, housing, medical and related welfare assistance funded significantly by the estate, whilst in many cases, few may work on the estate. The tea sector suffers the debilitating impact of prices determined by a discount culture that has corroded profitability while sustainability and welfare costs have grown. While employers, unions and employees seek a sustainable solution, wages currently account for 65-70% of the Cost of Production in an industry that is losing viability in an increasingly difficult international environment. Partly resulting from union representation in government, Sri Lanka typically maintains wage levels equivalent to the highest amongst major tea producing countries.
Through the Merrill J. Fernando Foundation, Dilmah additionally supports plantation workers and their families with the benefit of schools, scholarships, vocational training, medical infrastructure, nutrition, entrepreneurship development and more. In fulfilling Dilmah Founder Merrill J. Fernando’s wish for his business to serve humanity through kindness to people and planet, a minimum 15% pretax profits fund the work of the MJF Foundation amongst the tea plantations and wider community.
Plantation workers are strongly unionised and all government regulations on worker conditions and wages are strictly applied to all workers.
Unions renegotiate wages every two years with any increases unrelated to the fortunes of the tea industry.
Worker wellbeing is addressed by the welfare activities of the MJF Foundation, the Plantation Companies itself and through other organizations such as the Plantation Housing Welfare Trust, which specifically looks after housing issues. The long established industry in Sri Lanka ensures the absence of exploitation, unlike in new tea growing countries where there is less structure. Dilmah operates under the strict controls of the Sri Lanka Tea Board, Tea Research Institute and the strong plantation worker unions (of which there are 3 main ones).
Dilmah’s Human Resource Development is currently working hard to encourage long-term employee retention given the opportunities in Sri Lanka’s vibrant garment industry.
Child labour is illegal in Sri Lanka and is not practiced on any of Dilmah’s estates or factories.
The Ethical Tea Society was established by our family tea company, Dilmah, in recognition of the importance of sharing one small but important aspect of the work of the MJF Charitable Foundation; that is the deep sense of fulfilment that is an indirect benefit of the process of changing lives.