Stop troubling my Tetley, Tata

There is a dark side to the cozy comfort offered by your cup of tea

Nothing like a cuppa Tetley, wha?

I do love my Tetley. It’s a great way to warm up on a winter’s evening in the cabin, or to enjoy atop a cliff-top perch watching the summer’s sun set beneath a sparkling sea.

It’s also a great way to demonstrate the horrific effects of globalization and transnational corporations, when I get asked about such things.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we reach the bitter dregs of the cup, let’s savour the sweet scents wafting up from that cup o’ Tetley.

Tea, after all, plays a particularly special role in Newfoundland and Labrador culture and history. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians consume, per capita, more tea than any province in Canada.

The island is home to such appropriately named communities as Tea Cove (near Stephenville), while Labrador is home to Labrador Tea, from which is produced highly sought after herbal medicinal tea as well as essential oils. Innu tea dolls – originally a contrivance to trick children into helping transport tea on long trips – are now a high craft in great demand. Tea even has spin-off industries: the Scottish government website lists Newfoundland as one of the biggest markets for that indelible Scottish staple: Tunnocks Tea Cakes. Who woulda thought?

Yes, Newfoundland and Labrador and the venerable drink go together like… a cup o’ tea and a bicky.

But tea has a dark side, too, which is illustrated through ongoing events at the very heart of Tetley. Seems unlikely, doesn’t it? After all, Tetley is the very essence of a heartwarming free market success story.

In the bag

Joseph Tetley & Co. was established in 1837, the endeavour of two hard-working brothers from Yorkshire, England. They worked hard and were tremendously successful – as well as innovative. It was Tetley, after all, which invented the tea bag – albeit purely by accident.

Normally loose tea samples were sent out in tins, but in order to cut down on costs, the company started sending them in small silk bags instead. First-time tea users didn’t realize they were supposed to open the bag, the story goes, and instead dunked the entire unopened sampler into their cup. Shockingly improper to a tea-drinker, but it actually worked. Despite ridicule, Tetley decided to encourage the practice, and by mid-century the tea bag had become a fixture of the tea industry, bringing in even more revenue than loose tea.

Unbeknownst to many, however, Tetley Tea no longer exists as the independent British company that was built from the back of a pack horse by two British brothers. In 2000 Tetley was purchased by the Tata Group, a multinational business conglomerate from India. There’s nothing wrong about this in and of itself, of course. The high culture of tea was invented in Asia, after all.

How is my cuppa Tetley being produced?

The problem is, now that Tetley is owned by a much larger multinational corporation, headquartered a world away, it’s a lot more difficult to keep an eye on where, how, and under what conditions my cup o’ Tetley is being produced. After all, I don’t want the money I spend on tea going to prop up military dictatorships in Burma Tata produces supplies and equipment for the regime), or building a steel plant on the site of a tribal village where protesting villagers were massacred by local police.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. In August 2009, at a Tetley plantation in India, 22-year old employee Arti Oraon collapsed in the fields. Eight months pregnant, she’d been refused maternity leave – in violation of labour standards – and ordered to continue working the physically strenuous job of plucking tea leaves and carrying heavy loads. When she collapsed, the company refused to pay for an ambulance, and instead had her towed off the field by a tractor.

Call me old-fashioned, but I really don’t care for a cup of tea plucked by a pregnant woman forced to work illegally, just before she collapsed and who now faces criminal charges for it.

For Oraon’s co-workers this was the last straw. Hundreds of female employees organized a protest – and in retaliation, the company locked them all out. For three months nearly a thousand poor workers and their families – who relied on the factory for food rations – were literally starved as punishment by the company. Due to international pressure, the company ended the lockout just before Christmas.

The story has a new and uglier twist. Once human rights organizations turned their attention elsewhere, Tetley struck back at the workers. In April arrest warrants were issued against Arti Oraon and the co-workers who tried to help her. They face accusations of having threatened the doctor who refused her medical leave and who ordered her towed off the field by a tractor. If you ask me, he got off easy. They’re now out on bail, but still have to answer the charges, and Arti Oraon – whose only crime was to collapse when forced to work in the fields at eight months pregnant – could face up to seven years in jail. On January 16 of this year, over 500 mostly women workers rallied in protest against their treatment at that tea plantation, and they’re calling on supporters – and tea drinkers – around the world to help.

Not my cup of tea

Well that puts a serious kink in my Tetley. Call me old-fashioned, but I really don’t care for a cup of tea plucked by a pregnant woman forced to work illegally, just before she collapsed and who now faces criminal charges for it.

Tetley, what happened? Oh right. You were bought out by a multinational corporation which can operate in countries where labour standards are not enforced and where half the time we don’t even know what conditions our tea is being produced under.

But, since I don’t like leaving on a downer, here are three suggestions about what we can do in response to the tarnishing of our Tetley, should we so desire:

1. Check out this website and send a letter to Tetley. I mean Tata. I mean… whoever’s calling the shots in this complicated world. Also, be aware of where your food products come from.

2. Got a nan with superpowers? Let her know what Tata’s done to her Tetley. Their days may be numbered.

3. Got a hankering for a cup o’ tea and a bicky? Well maybe I’ll go check out some of that good old Labrador Tea, instead.

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