Labor is the top priority when it comes to H&W purchasing criteria, followed by sustainability and health. Labor appreciation is not necessarily determined by the gross number of employees, but rather by favoring good labor practices.
When I first thought about buying tea and being a part of the tea trade, the history of tea consumed me. The thousands of years it has been in cultivation are not pretty. Mostly I was obsessed with the contrast between the personal benefits of tea and its global impact through history. In a one-on-one relationship tea is a friend, a tool, a partner...it's so healthy I find it hard to think of a better habit I've ever cultivated in my life. The catch is that the tea industry is notoriously nasty in history, and there are echoes of it in today’s market. In the many millennia of tea cultivation the peaceful eras are not so easy to find, but ideally those ought to be our strongest resonance in the industry.
Initial tea development appears to root itself in monasteries, where it was likely tended to and consumed by monks for the aid their meditation. After that scholars, royalty, and eventually everyone became consumers. Once tea exploded into daily life the farming for tea was largely a matter of state control. The significance of a country’s identity through tea is a strong nationalist remnant, which is appreciated in many respects. However, here in the US the largest remnant of tea history is direct colonialism. Our association of tea with Britain is much stronger than China, India, Japan, or Taiwan. It isn’t fair to say that the state control of tea was ever a fully benevolent era in the history of tea, but I believe the colonial mark of tea is much worse. Yet in the timeframe of the East India Trading Co. tea still brought the same miraculous aid to daily life that we enjoy today. I’d like to say the primary difference to today was all the slavery.
The history of slavery is what makes labor a crucial criterion in tea purchasing. Although tea labor is prolific today, it varies from country to country. The repatriation of tea plantations throughout Asia and Africa were an important mark of independence and the end of indentured farming; yet most of the time I meet people who think about tea like it’s being shipped from India on a wooden boat, soaking in bergamot. This is what haunts me whenever I find allegations of labor violations in the tea industry. Nowadays slavery has a shadowy face. No longer is it an explicit policy governing slavery, but an implicit pricing demand within a complicated international market. It’s become the soft power of a market more than the hard power of any government laying the foundation of labor issues in tea cultivation. In some instances, tea labor violations are a byproduct of state policies like an embargo of foreign workers or overlooking management misbehavior; but most of times it’s the fault of an international auction-based sales system. Through the research I’ve done regarding tea labor, most instances of corruption in fair-trade marketing, uncovered labor trafficking, illegal pesticide usage, or counterfeiting are strung together in the common thread of the international auction system. For this reason, we buy directly from trusted farmers and processors.
Hand plucked vs. Machine cut:
Tea producing countries have different environmental and political concerns associated with their tea. In most instances hand-plucked tea is the better tea because it stops the leaf from oxidizing as heavily as machine-cut tea until the processing facility begins that leg of the tea making recipe.
However, in Taiwan foreign labor was curtailed by the government, and hand-plucking tea is not an appealing job. There are rumors circulating in Taiwan that, in search of a pluckers loophole, some tea farmers are marrying trafficked young women from South East Asia and having them pluck tea. This is abhorrent and H&W refuses to be blind to this possibility. Since most tea in Taiwan is processed by a collective township, it is difficult to determine which tea leaves in any cup are a result of trafficking and which are from paid work. For this reason, all Taiwanese teas we sell comes from farmers who machine-cut their tea. The processing facility is renowned for taking machine-cut tea and making it better or equal quality to hand-plucked tea. Largely this is due to the charcoal roasting—very rare in the tea-making world—and 5 generations of tea production knowledge.
In India, labor is abundant and hand-plucked tea is not nearly as nefarious. The primary indicator of labor-safety differs from Taiwan or China. There, tea price and the use of shareholding among workers tells the story of labor safety. Ideally, worker shares are positive tools, but there are reports of abuse by some Indian tea company managements forcing shares on tea pluckers when profits aren’t on track, telling workers that they can either buy shares at inopportune times with a portion of their paycheck or be fired. The International Farmers Union is a considerable ally for finding safe teas in India, but as of now H&W does not sell anything from India. If/when that happens it will likely be hand-plucked.
Lastly, in Japan there are considerable agricultural policies protecting farmers, but the sale of tea to the US is still an auction-based system that favors larger farms. We buy from a lovely man whose farm has been in his family for generations. The guy is just great, and buying small avoids the complications of the auction.
All of the teaware for sale is my own creation. I started making them because I couldn’t afford a Sencha teapot, and all the tea balls let so many leaves fall through the wire mesh. Nothing I’ve made is traditional, but everything works with the tea sold on this site. The teapots don’t have lids because the cups made with them fit on top, and everything can be made to order if it’s been sold. The designs are unique since, as a boy from Kansas, I don’t have personal allegiance to any particular tradition in tea. It has made me a more meditative person, though.