Tea, alongside coffee, herbs and spices, is one of the major discoveries from the East which completely transformed Western economies a few centuries ago. It has become such a staple in British culture in particular that there’s a circulating joke that the equivalent to anarchy in the UK is refusing tea when offered. Tea even features in local slang with a wide range of meanings, from a thief (because it rhymes with tea leaf) to fortune-telling.
Unfortunately, as with many industries producing goods, we enjoy and can barely live without, exploitation is rife. Little do we know about the efforts and sacrifices needed by mainly women to deliver our favorite drink to the table. Even though we see both tea and coffee as liquids, they don’t come like this naturally. They are, of course, plants, which require planting in the soil, watering, protecting from weather conditions and bugs, picking, and processing.
Elena Kalyuzhnaya gives us the story of what it takes to supply the world with one of its most cherished drinks and it’s not a pretty picture. As the author states, women are simply better at picking tea leaves, and throughout history, they have always been at a disadvantage when it came to the labor market. Workers' rights, which we take for granted in the west and confuse with human rights, are simply unheard of in the Talawakelle village. Women are required to pick a minimum of 18kg of tea leaves per day, otherwise, their wages are reduced.
The wages are low — there is the case of a family of 5 having to live off the equivalent of $45 a month — and the work is backbreaking. So hard in fact that most women have to stop working at a fairly young age due to health conditions. Regardless of the squalid work conditions, many of the women feel grateful for their work; I do wonder whether it’s due to a sense of collectivity and the fact that it’s probably the same job that their friends and family do so there is no stigma or shame attached to it.
It’s a ruefully sad story, yet one full of hope. As Kalyuzhnaya says there is tenderness in the women’s voices and also an aspiration that their children will not have to endure the same fate as them to provide for their family.
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