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History of tea, global position and workers' dilemmas

Published : Tuesday, 4 October, 2022 at 12:00 AM  Count : 1627
ASM Anam Ullah, Mamta Chowdhury

According to Grace Tea Company which has operated as one of the world's leading tea producers and sellers since 1959, in ancient China, it took approximately 3000 years to make tea popularise as a popular drink throughout the Chinese Empire. During the Tang Dynasty (600-900 AD), tea's popularity was initially recognised. Then, steamed and dried loose-leaf tea became popular in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

According to Jeevitand Gillian Daniel, a Chinese emperor named Shen Nung (one of the Three Sovereigns, a group of mythological rulers, 2852 to 2070 BC) was sitting in the shade of a wild tea tree boiling some drinking water when a wind blew a few trees' leaves into the pot, giving the water a taste that he found delicious. Emperor Nung further experimented and found that it had medicinal properties and a pleasant smell. He then encouraged the Chinese people to cultivate the tree for the benefit of the entire nation. Over time, he became the legendary father of tea, as we know from the historical analysis of Grace Tea Company and other scholars such as Gillian Daniel.  

The Dutch were probably the first to drink tea in European. According to Grace Tea Company, the first shipment was sent to the Dutch in 1610, with an introduction to Britain in 1650, although coffee reached Britain a little earlier. The historical analysis of the introduction of tea in Britain could have been found through the analysis of the Grace tea Company, which suggests that, in 1657, Thomas Garway, an English proprietor, got the idea to serve tea to the masses. As aresult, it quickly became the drink of choice, surpassing wine and liquor in Britain.

Unfortunately, the Government of Britain soon began to lose all taxes associated with the sale of alcohol. They quickly remedied the situation but taxed the tea. Nevertheless, it did not become a standard drink for the upper and middle classes until the early part of the following century. When coffee shops became too disreputable for respectable people, royalty, aristocracy and ordinary working people drank tea in London's pleasure gardens. Later,in the 19th century, tea became one of the essential beverages in British social life.

From the ancient period, there were over 3,000 different variations in tea. Yet, the world's most widely consumed beverage has historical and cultural significance that cannot be contested. However, according to Prophecy Market Insights (2022), several types of teas currently dominates the globalmarket(a) Black Tea (hypermarkets/supermarkets), (b) Green Tea (Specialty Retailers), (c) Fermented Tea (Convenience Stores), and (d) Herbal Tea (Food Service Channels).

According to Prophecy Market Insights (2022), the global tea market is segmented by region: North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, and the Middle East & Africa. However, the Asia Pacific tea market is expected to account for a significant share of the global tea market revenue during the forecast period. According to data published by the Tea Data Board India, India recorded the highest tea production in the financial year 2015-16; exports breached the 230 million kg mark. Further, according to data published by the ITC (International Tea Committee), in January 2018, the United States remained the world's third largest tea importer after Russia.

The major tea brands and their corporations are Starbucks Corporation, Twining Crosfield and Company Ltd, Tata Global Beverages Limited, Unilever PLC, Orientis Gourmet SAS, Ito En, Ltd, Associated British Foods Plc, Wissotzky Tea (Israel) Ltd., Nestlé S.A, Lipton and Tetley Tea Company.Covina published a report on 14 February 2022 at Globe Newswire, and it shows that the global tea market was valued at US$58.5 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach US$104.2 billion by 2029.  

Penn Medicine's (2022) research further shows that tea can boost mood, improve focus, and offer mental health benefits such as depression and dementia. Different types of tea are produced, such as oolong, green, black and ilex tea, depending on the post-harvest treatment and flavour of a particular region. This can be attributed to the growing awareness of the health benefits of tea among people, the increasing demand for tea in countries like India and China in the region, and its anti-aging properties.

Despite tea's many social and economic benefits, the tea industry worldwide shows the precarious working conditions and the plight of tea workers. For example, modern slavery takes many forms; domestic violence, sexual exploitation, trafficking etc. One of the most common forms of slavery is labour exploitation and debt bondage.Tea workers are often considered 'bonded labourers' who are heavily exploited and do not get proper benefits from their state governments or global tea brands.

Ideally, tea comes in bags as loose leaves from the plantation and arrives at a factory to be manufactured and packaged. But, before it comes to the factory or a manufacturing hub for packaging, many processes involve human labour. In every step, the exploitation of labourers also persists, showing modern slavery in the tea industry worldwide.

So, from the above analysis, it is clear that tea workers significantly contribute to national and global GDP, but low wages and meagre working conditions severely compromise their livelihoods. So, when we make a cup of tea, we should consider those who contributed to the final tea product and consumption. Consumers, tea brands and corporations, and countries that produce tea should follow fair trade or ethical tea production and consumption worldwide.
ASM Anam Ullah is an academic and researcher at the University of Wollongong, Australia; Dr Mamta Chowdhury is a senior lecturer at Western Sydney University Australia

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