We’re doing some work in Malawi with the farms we buy tea from and the wider industry.
It’s a country which faces a lot of challenges, and for over five years we were involved in a project with fellow tea companies, the Ethical Tea Partnership, NGOs and other organisations called Malawi Tea 2020.
Despite the progress made, there’s much work to be done, and upsetting reports from women tea workers on one of the tea farms we buy from in Malawi have highlighted that urgent action is needed to ensure the safety of women on estates and support gender equality.
When the reports came to light, we committed to continue to work with our suppliers to support them as they were helped by an external human rights consultancy to put remediation plans in place. We’ve stayed close to this work to make sure the plans are being fully implemented and delivering real change for their workers and have received regular reports on developments. Members of our tea buying and sustainability teams visited in May 2022 to see the progress first-hand.
The wide-ranging plan has been progressing well, especially considering the extra logistical challenges posed by the pandemic.
Encouraging greater openness and opportunities for workers to safely raise concerns has been an important part of this. Grievances raised by workers are all being worked through, with many successful instances of closure and remediation for those involved.
Changing the working culture, including changes to management structures have also been crucial. Human resources teams have expanded significantly, with capacity building and training support to make them more effective. Recruitment has changed so it is handled by HR where previously the process could lead to abuses of power from recruiting supervisors. Open-door policies and greater visibility of senior management promotes transparency and encourages workers to report grievances and trust the process.
Progress towards a more gender-equal work force takes time but is supported by gender balanced recruitment where possible, including an intake of field managers comprised of young graduates from local universities with no history of tea sector norms.
Workers have been able to see the outcome of grievance procedures, with disciplinary actions extending through all levels of management seniority. This helps demonstrate that gender sensitive policies and practices apply to everyone.
Our suppliers continue to receive support from the human rights consultancy, helping to embed these cultural changes and deliver training. It’s expected that this will continue as long as needed, with future checkpoints to make sure the positive change continues.
We also want to address the underlying factors which can lead to human rights risks on estates. In September 2021 we launched a project with the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and Lujeri Tea Estate called Ulalo (or ‘Bridge’) – the first piece of a wide-ranging programme to address the deep-rooted challenges of gender inequality in the tea supply chain in Malawi.
The three-year project, in which we’re investing just under a quarter of a million pounds, aims to establish over 500 community savings groups. These groups, known as Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs), are a tried and tested way to support financial empowerment and stability and reduce the risks of exploitation – especially for women. As well as improving financial literacy, decision-making and economic resilience it’s anticipated that Ulalo will help participants to diversify their sources of income and increase their food security.
To date 216 VSLA groups have been set up with over 3,000 workers, and despite the successes there are also challenges. Currently 42.6% of VSLA leadership positions are occupied by women – below the project target of 50%. Barriers include low literacy levels, low self-confidence in leadership and low acceptance of women in leadership, so work is being done to improve perceptions of women in leadership positions and develop peer-mentoring groups among women.
During the three year project we hope to support the establishment of 500 groups covering 10,000 workers.
The reports from women tea workers in Malawi also showed that we need to do more to recognise the signs of potential abuses across our supply chain. Since 2014, we’ve only sourced from suppliers with independent, third-party certification for our core teas and coffees. But in some cases, certification isn’t enough, so we’ve developed a broader approach to human rights based on the UN Guiding Principles, which we’re now rolling out across our whole supply chain. You can read more about that here.
To keep updated on next steps or to find out more about how we source our tea and coffee, please check back here.