Photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, Jonny Pickup writes for PhotoVoice on his project ‘Flush’, which investigates the lives of tea workers and the reality of working for a plantation that uses the term ‘fair-trade’. 

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.

"Labourers carry tea leaves to the Happy Valley factory in Darjeeling" © Jonny Pickup

“Labourers carry tea leaves to the Happy Valley factory in Darjeeling” © Jonny Pickup

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 harvested, rolled, dried, 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.

The workers become 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. The women of Darjeeling are used as a marketing tool and a resource for enforcing brand-image.

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.

Poleitra Kai, is a labourer who had worked 30 years in a Darjeeling plantation factory before retiring, she did not have the option to sell the land, nor the money to move away from the planation, so to keep her house her daughter replaced her in the factory. This started form of entrapment started in colonial India and was implemented to ensure plantations had enough workers to meet demand.

"Dip Kumar Rai & Poleitra Kai in their kitchen" © Jonny Pickup

“Dip Kumar Rai & Poleitra Kai in their kitchen” © Jonny Pickup

I have used photography to visually express the reality of tea workers lives’, the hardship and poverty of these women and their families. I intend the images to force the audience to question and challenge the contemporary fetishisation and aestheticisation of labourers. Further, Flush shows how labourers working for fair trade companies live in cramped houses made from tin, and illustrates the lack of responsibility that plantation owners take in ensuring good living and working conditions. Above all, it provides evidence that inequality is still rife in the tea industry.

Find out more about Jonny Pickup’s work here  or visit his Instagram page here

Feature image: “Plantation worker returns home as a storm rolls in. She had worked 10 hours on the steep mountains and was paid 1 pound 30 pence” © Jonny Pickup