The Life of a Tea Plucker
The best quality teas around the world are all harvested by hand to guarantee that the leaf is whole, undamaged, and that only the top two leaves and a bud are picked. On every quality tea estate there are hundreds or even thousands of tea harvesters, known as pluckers.
In Africa, the tea pluckers are almost always male -- but in India, China and Sri Lanka they are always women. They generally work at harvesting tea six days a week, eight hours a day.
The typical day at a Fair Trade estate in India starts with the morning whistle signifying that the workday will start in 30 minutes. All the pluckers gather at the location where they kno w the harvesting will start that day. They carry large wicker baskets that strap across their foreheads with the baskets hanging down their backs. In the Darjeeling area, the women often carry umbrellas for protection against the rain and intense sun.
Tea plants are kept at a perfect height so that harvesting can be accomplished without extreme bending of the back. Though it is physical work, it is not overly demanding physically, and many pluckers continue to work into their 60s. The process of harvesting is simple: you slip your fingers under the new growth, twist and pull up the two leaves and a bud, and throw it into the basket on your back -- and immediately reach for the next bud.
The pluckers have a goal each day -- and they are awarded a bonus if they exceed it -- so there is a benefit to efficient work. Three or four times a day they take their basket to an area where the leaves are looked at for quality (no poorly harvested leaves are accepted), weighed and recorded. At lunch, after the second weighing, the pluckers congregate together outside if the weather is nice, or inside a nearby building. Those with children not yet in school, always harvest in the region nearest their home so that they can go home at lunch to be with their children. Those who are nursing can visit the day care center or their home to nurse during weighing times and lunch.
The days during harvest are much the same. During the relatively short off-season, pluckers will often mulch the fields, apply compost, trim the tea bushes if needed and do other general field work. Like workers everywhere, now and then the pluckers get an unexpected break due to circumstances -- like the day a small herd of wild elephants came into the harvesting area. The pluckers were all very excited, although also a little wary, as elephants can get aggressive and run over and injure workers. (Fortunately, elephants do not like tea and generally do little damage to the tea bushes.)
Pluckers make a reasonable salary and, on a Fair Trade estate, compensation includes free housing, medical care, childcare and schooling. The literacy rate on the estates is almost 100%. Plucking is considered a good job in India where women don't have the same opportunities for well-paying jobs that they do in the Western countries. They are often the breadwinners of the family and they have far fewer children than women who are not working.
The day ends with the final weighing and then it is off to home. Sunday is a day off and Saturday night is definitely the social night -- the pluckers are likely to be found nicely dressed and walking to gatherings in nearby villages.
Frontier Sourcing Trips
» Tea Sourcing, India, April 2006
» The Life of a Tea Plucker
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