How Twinings is championing women’s rights in the tea supply chain

EXCLUSIVE: Twinings' decision to increase its funding initiative with UNICEF for vulnerable tea farmers in Assam was built on a belief that improving skills, health and wellbeing is critical to securing the long-term security of the supply chain, the company's head of social impact has revealed.

Last week, Twinings announced that a funding programme for a partnership with children’s charity UNICEF had been increased for an additional five years. The partnership, which commenced in 2010, has already benefitted 34,000 young women living on tea estates in Assam, North India, giving them access to better nutrition and protection while fostering a sense of empowerment.

Assam contributes to more than half of the country’s tea production, with 17% of the state’s population working on tea estates. However, these workers are among the most marginalised groups in the area, with data showing that almost half of the women and girls in the tea gardens are stunted, while more than 96% are anaemic. High maternal mortality, early marriage, low-learning levels, under-nutrition and cases of trafficking are also common in the state.

Since 2010, Twinings has been working to improve the lives of these women, with the company’s head of social impact Celine Gilart telling edie that the partnership with UNICEF is built on a desire to create a thriving, long-term supply chain for tea that enhances the lives of supply chain workers.

“We don’t employ these people directly, but we play a part in their lives,” Gilart told edie. “It’s about being responsible, but we need a sustainable, long-term supply chain of high quality tea. India is one of the largest tea growing countries in the world and Assam is the main growing region, and we need to attract younger generations to work as a tea farmer.

“Our work helps the supply chain and we can impact day to day lives and try to drive change in communities we source from. Using the influence and power we have to drive change, make improvements and have broader conversations across the industry and the region we can encourage others to replicate it and drive change themselves.”

Girls club

Originally focusing on nutrition, the funding partnership has evolved in recent years. An increase in the number of young women being trafficked as domestic workers or sex slaves led to the partnership focusing on protection, including the creation of numerous “adolescent girl’s clubs”, which enables young women on the estates to discuss previously taboo subjects such as child marriage.

The latest phase of the partnership aims to improve the lives of vulnerable women and children, including young boys, across 63 tea gardens in Assam, which have a total population of 350,000. It will aim to encourage girls and boys to stay in school, while providing them with health services and social protection schemes.

The partnership also extends beyond the tea estates that Twinings sources from. The company currently buys produce from 40 tea farms in the estate, but as some companies own numerous gardens, Twinings is extending the protection programme beyond those it sources from.

Notably, the next phase of the project will also involve local authorities and police to ensure that the workers remain protected. Twinings has a dedicated team, albeit small, that operate on the ground in Assam and work with the Indian Tea Association to ensure funding is allocated in a beneficial way. By working with authorities, Gilart hopes to ensure that the project can’t revert backwards.

“Through the initiatives, the girls have been empowered and they can support others in the estate through peer-to-peer learning,” Gilart said. “We’re now working with community leaders, police and local government to build a support network and reduce risk of trafficking and abuse.

“All projects need to be sustainable so that if we ever stopped funding it, it wouldn’t revert back to how it was. A big part of the new phase is reaching out to make sure what has been put in place continues. There are some great programmes in Assam, but very often they weren’t including tea communities. We need them included to protect them.”

Sourced with Care

The projects in Assam are just some of the interventions created under Twinings’ wider ‘Sourced with Care’ programme, which aims to improve the lives of half a million people in the global tea supply chain by 2020.

Last year, the Twinings Community Needs Assessment (TCNA) was launched to evaluate human rights risks to improve working conditions in all tea estates in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More than 134,000 people have benefited from the Sourced with Care scheme, while 75% of the tea gardens that Twinings sources from are sustainably certified.

The initiative reflects a growing realisation among major tea brands that only a thriving and sustainable sector can deliver long-term impact for workers and smallholders. Twinings has already formed a multi-stakeholder coalition alongside the likes of Tesco, Marks & Spencer (M&S), and Unilever which aims to achieve a competitive Malawian tea sector where workers earn a living wage and smallholders earn a living income by 2020.

The company is also one of the founding members of the Ethical Tea Partnership, which launched a similar scheme to Twining’s Assam-based projects back in 2014. According to Gilart, the collaborative approach will enable the tea industry to drive global change.

“The Ethical Tea Partnership launched a similar programme to build on our work, on different estates where the issues are similar, and we’re working with them on synergies to help maximise our impact,” Gilart added. “This isn’t just a Twinings project, the more interest and funding we can get, the more change we can drive, which is the real objective.”

Matt Mace

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