Own label teas are changing lives in flood-hit Malawi, reports Fairtrade Foundation

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The sale of own-label teas in supermarkets including the Co-operative, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, is helping to change lives in some of the poorest countries in the world including Malawi, according to a new film from the Fairtrade Foundation.

‘Fairtrade Matters’, which has been shown at hundreds of screenings across the UK and viewed 200,000 times online since its premiere during Fairtrade Fortnight, shows the difference that Fairtrade makes for tea farmers and workers in Malawi, as well as their families and communities.

Globally, most tea is grown on plantations and the sector is renowned for low prices, low workers’ wages and poor working conditions. Fairtrade helps to tackle these problems through a minimum price, which acts as a vital safety net when market prices are low, and the Fairtrade Premium, an extra amount that can be invested to benefit farmers, workers and the community. Fairtrade Standards protect workers’ rights and since January 2014, Fairtrade-certified plantations must make progress towards a Living Wage over time.

The Co-operative, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose source all of their own-label tea on Fairtrade terms. Tesco also sells a number of Fairtrade tea lines, as do brands including Cafédirect, Clipper, London Tea Company and Traidcraft. Estimated UK retail sales of Fairtrade tea were £75m in 2014, or about one in every ten boxes of tea sold.

Edson, the Malawian tea farmer who features in Fairtrade’s film, says his children’s lives were saved because an ambulance bought with Fairtrade Premium took them to hospital when they caught malaria. Fairtrade has enabled his co-op to provide safe drinking water to several villages, invest in a maternity ward that saves expectant mothers from making a 40km journey, and pay for orphaned children to go to school.

Malawian tea worker, Tsala says that because of Fairtrade she can feed her family during the lean months of December, January and February. She now has solar power in her home, can afford soap, and her sister has a bursary to go to school. Workers at her estate now have uniforms, safety equipment and regular medical check-ups. Many have replaced their thatched roofs with iron sheets, for better flood protection.

Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries and relies heavily on the export of tea, which accounts for as much as 30 per cent of its foreign exchange. Just weeks after ‘Fairtrade Matters’ was filmed, the country was hit by its worst floods for four decades, leaving hundreds of people dead, 200,000 displaced, and crops and livelihoods devastated. Fairtrade Foundation has launched an emergency appeal to raise funds for the replanting of tea and sugar crops.

Richard Anstead, head of product management at the Fairtrade Foundation, said: “Edson and Tsala are just two out of thousands of tea farmers and workers in Malawi whose lives have been improved because some of the UK’s leading retailers and brands have bought their tea on Fairtrade terms. It’s a great start, but we need to go further if we are going to lift tea farmers and workers out of poverty and enable them to build a better future.”

Last year, following a project initiated by Fairtrade and supported by other certification bodies, a Living Wage benchmark was established for tea workers in Malawi. “Only a fraction of tea grown in Malawi is sold on Fairtrade terms, so our ability to transform workers’ wages is limited if we act alone,” said Anstead. Fairtrade is now working with the industry to ensure that plantations can move towards payment of the Living Wage without unintended consequences such as worker lay-offs, and is also supporting work by the Ethical Tea Partnership and Oxfam to champion much-needed change within the Malawi tea sector.

“What is clear is that suppliers can’t bear the whole cost of paying Living Wage, everyone needs to play their part,” said Anstead. “In the UK, most tea is sold on special offer and that means that we don’t value it as much as we should but ultimately, if we want to make a greater difference to the lives of the people who grow our tea, we all need to be prepared to pay a little more for a cuppa.”

Globally, more than 258,000 tea farmers and workers in 14 countries benefit from Fairtrade tea sales.