Flush is an investigation into the fetishization of female tea pickers in Darjeeling, and attempts to challenge this contemporary issue through photographic evidence. The Tea Board of India (TBI), to make Darjeeling tea seem more ‘authentic’, portray their labourers as a consumable aspect of the ‘tea experience’ and exploit them in advertising campaigns to promote fair-trade. Through photographic investigation, Flush aims to deconstruct this representation and shed light on the realities of inequality in the tea industry.
The TBI promote Darjeeling tea as a product of the area’s geographical indication or GI — the qualities of a geographical area that are unique to it as a region, which include the climate, elevation, soil, annual rain fall / sunlight. In Darjeeling’s case, the GI also includes its ‘exotic’ Nepalese labourers who are promoted as combining with the environment to create a unique flavour in the tea — comparable to a vintage wine.
One problem for the TBI is that international markets demand ethically sourced products, something that does not sit well with Darjeeling’s “unsavoury legacy” of exploitation and colonialism, along with the fact that, today, the “mono-cropped plantation landscape [is] maintained by low-paid, predominantly female wage labourers” (Besky, 2014: P96). To avoid this problem, the marketing of Darjeeling tea is targeted to convey a symbolic and harmonious unity between the labourers and the plants themselves.
Tea tourism acts as a way for plantations to reinforce such perceptions. It is not enough merely to convey the message that something is geographically distinct, that perception needs to be proved; tourism allows this. Darjeeling’s tea tourism promotes an ‘experience’ — guided tours of factories show how tea is made and crucially, tourists are given the opportunity to meet the labourers. Workers will pose for pictures, sing songs or describe the beauty of Darjeeling for tourists. Becoming a ‘live show’, accessible to Western tourists upon demand. This creates a contemporary version of colonial exploitation, hidden under the banner of equality and fair-trade..
An additional goal of my study into the lives of the tea workers was to investigate the term ‘fair-trade’ and to discover what (if any) positive impact such initiatives have had on the plantation and people. Often fair trade schemes “shift the focus away from plantation wage labour” (Besky, 2014: P114), and instead give emphasis towards small, low interest loans. For example, ‘loans for livestock’ schemes are common — they allow workers to borrow money to buy a cow, then sell the dung as manure back to the plantations and the milk to the surrounding community. Such initiatives are designed to empower workers, but instead ensure dependency on the planation.
Most worrying of all however is my discovery of a modern form of slavery that exists in plantation life. Retired workers must find a family member to replace them or they are forced to vacate the house provided by the plantation. Often this means daughters or granddaughters will be pressured into filling these roles from a young age knowing that refusal will leave their family homeless.
Tea People was founded to address the issue of educational development within the impoverished region of Darjeeling. Tea People are a social enterprise who have pledged to put aside a minimum of 50% of net profits to better the opportunities of the Darjeeling tea labourers and their families.
Despite being home to the finest tea growing regions anywhere in the world and attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, Darjeeling is mired in its own socio-economic and political issues and therefore one of the most under-developed regions in India. Despite producing one of the world's most expensive teas workers earn less than a £1 a day.
The overall vision is to empower the local community, especially young girls by providing them with access to equal opportunities. Their belief is that education is a great tool to innovate change, and therefore focus their efforts in the following areas:
1) The Improvement of educational infrastructure and facilities.
2) To improve the quality of education in secondary schools.
3) To support individual students, especially girls who are willing to acquire further and higher education but are not able to due to financial constraints.
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