By Anne-Marie Hardie
Organic certification was a relatively new concept when Stassen Bio Garden recognized its importance both to the planet and to the economy. It was 1987, and the tea estate made the decision to certify one of its tea gardens.
The first step was to stop using chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Eliminating the residue took several years but as workers added compost and cow manure the soil gradually returned to good health. Planting indigenous trees helped alleviate soil erosion and support biodiversity.
The shift to organic production just made sense to a company that wanted to keep pace with market demands while protecting the environment, explained Rajaratnam Gnanasekeran, manager, Idalgashinna Bio tea project. Like many workers on the tea plantations in Sri Lanka, Gnanasekeran is Tamil. Over the past three decades, he has worked extensively to ensure that the workers not only are heard, but that their rights remain a top priority.
Changes didn’t end with organic certification. Stassen Bio Garden wanted to do more, and so in 1992, they pursued Fairtrade certification. The motivation was twofold, said Gnanasekeran, who now chairs the National Fairtrade producer association of Sri Lanka. The intent was to improve the lives of the workers and to respond to buyers. “We wanted to support the community and at the same time the buyers also wanted the Fairtrade tea,” said Gnanasekeran.
At that time plantations were controlled by authoritative management, and workers operated in an atmosphere of fear and obligation. Under the Fairtrade standards, the workers were encouraged to communicate and share both their ideas and their worries. “People are given dignity, freedom, and they are more independent,” said Gnanasekeran. “They are given equal rights. All we wanted was everybody to be treated equally,” he said.
Sri Lanka is a very traditional country with a hierarchical business structure. It was difficult introducing a more horizontal, less formal structure, where workers and management come together as equals. Fairtrade compliance mandated this cultural shift.
The training that was a part of the certification process helped both management and workers adapt. Management learned that there less autocratic ways to manage staff that net positive results in productivity. Workers became more comfortable with expressing their opinions and sharing ideas. Workers and managers were encouraged to operate as a team. This process not only helped establish equality between management and workers but also helped alleviate gender inequality. On the average estate, women make up about 50% of the workers. Due to increased exposure to the fairtrade standards and principles, Gnanasekeran has seen more men and women come together to discuss their concerns.
Fairtrade certification ensures the estate receives a minimum price for their tea. Workers share the premium may allocate this money wherever they see the most need.
“The premium just started slowly coming in, a very small amount at a time, and was given to the premium committee (a group of individuals nominated by the workers),” said Gnanasekeran. “The interesting part is that the workers plan it, implement it, and eventually are able to follow through to ensure that the funds were applied to the areas most needed.”
Accessible education was a first priority. The nearest school was beyond walking distance for most children, particularly the younger ones, and bad roads made walking even more difficult. The plantation company could not afford to provide transportation, and so several plantation children did not attend. Seeing the value in education, the workers at Stassen Bio Garden jointly decided to use the Fairtrade premium to purchase a bus. “All the children are now able to go to school,” said Gnanasekeran. “From the age of six the children are taken from their home to the school and brought back to their home.”
At another estate workers established a shop. “They were able to bring in the goods, and the people benefitted by getting very reasonable rates on the products. All profits that came from the shop sales went back to the workers,” said Gnanasekeran. On a small holder certified farm they used the premium to purchase young seedlings, increasing overall productivity and bringing in more income for the farmers.
Challenges still remain. The cost of production in Sri Lanka remains quite high, and for some plantations it becomes very challenging to remain sustainable when sales of Fairtrade products decline. Higher market prices are essential for Fairtrade to be successful.
Overall, Gnanasekeran views the results of Fairtrade certification as very positive. People’s attitudes have changed, and they seem happier. “They have no fear now, and the workers are able to meet and speak with management directly,” said Gnanasekeran. “They feel that they are not just laborers, they are also part of this organization.” Worker productivity has increased overall but beyond that the atmosphere has become more like a family, everyone is working closely together towards a common goal.