Save the Children promotes ‘Businesses with a Heart’ initiative as Tea Industry commits to protect child rights in Tea supply chain
Sri Lanka is the world's fourth largest producer of tea. The tea industry in Sri Lanka contributes more than $1.5 billion USD to the economy and forms 2% of GDP. The industry employs over one million people, and a typical estate household has 4.2 persons comprising two-three adults and one-two children under 15 years-old. Women account for 67.3% of the permanent workforce of plantation companies while 5.3% of the 6.4 million child population live in the sector. The health, nutrition and education of children on tea estates has historically lagged behind that of other children in Sri Lanka. Poor quality housing, water and sanitation, along with a high incidence of substance abuse and traditional dietary restrictions among pregnant women and infants result in poor outcomes for mothers and children. The rate of poverty in the estate sector is high (8.8%), compared with the rural sector (4.3%) and the urban sector (1.9%).
Role of Save the Children
The Human Rights and Businesses Principles framework introduced by United Nation was later adopted by UNICEF and Save the Children to introduce the global framework of Child Rights and Business Principles with the aim to specifically focus on rights of children impacted by businesses worldwide. This framework was adapted by Save the Children in Sri Lanka for the Tea Industry. Sri Lankan Tea companies have worked in partnership with Save the Children to improve lives of women and children living in tea plantation areas. In 2019, Save the Children facilitated a Public Private Partnership (PPP) between the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs and five Plantation companies. This was a critical milestone achieved since historically industry stakeholders and government institutions have provided services to the plantation sector without adequate coordination. Save the Children currently works with 5 plantation companies - Horana Plantations PLC, Kelani Valley Plantations PLC, Talawakelle Tea Estates PLC, Bogawantalawa Tea Estates PLC, and Elpitiya Plantations PLC in implementing a Child Protection Policy that upholds 10 child protection standards across their estates. These companies have recognized the need to deepen their understanding of child rights risks in plantation settings and also along the tea supply chain, in order to identify appropriate strategies and approaches for addressing child rights issues at different levels. By end of 2021, the aim is to reach out to other companies in the tea industry and ensure that more than 60% of the regional plantation companies sign up to uphold child protection standards through organizational child protection policies.
Study on Tea Supply Chain risks for Children in Sri Lanka
A recent study conducted by Save the Children found that 79.9 % of parents in Sri Lanka’s tea estates believed that there were potential risks and vulnerabilities to their children within their communities and 21.8 % of children said they often witnessed violence. The study was conducted to understand the impact of tea industry on children, in partnership with the Centre for Child Rights & Corporate Social Responsibility (CCR CSR) – Hong Kong. The ‘Child Rights Risk Assessment – Tea Industry Supply Chain’ was released on August 28, 2020. The study identifies potential entry points for influence to making sustainable progress and improvement in the lives of children living within tea growing communities. The study has three main objectives; a). to analyse child rights risks specific to smallholder farms and mid-sized tea estates, b) to assess the level of impact of the policies and practices that the particular stakeholder may have on children, and c). to assess and map opportunities and potential areas of engagement to involve tea industry stakeholders for the wellbeing of children living within smallholder and mid-sized tea growing communities.
Buddhini Withana, Senior Technical Advisor – Child Protection, Save the Children said, ‘The findings of this research unravel a hidden phenomenon relating to children’s rights and protection. Small holdings and mid-sized tea estates are largely unregulated, as regulatory obligations on worker and community wellbeing that various regulatory bodies require larger tea companies to fulfill are not applicable to this sector. Therefore certain grave protection issues that children and families face as worker families never come to light.’
Many large tea companies have now identified the importance of securing children’s rights and protection on their estates. Ms. Withana stated that 70% of tea production have come from small holdings and mid-sized estates. She said in this context, it was paramount that key stakeholders took the findings of the research seriously, to ensure the greater population of workers and their families in the tea industry were protected and their wellbeing safeguarded.
Save the Children’s report points out that the fact that labourers come from some of the most marginalized families and their significantly worse financial state compared to small tea plantation owners, are obstacles to ensure children have access to adequate protection, education and healthcare services.
Poor living conditions in midsized tea estates with little or no privacy pose a significant risk to child protection. This is aggravated by the lack of community based day care options and a lack of parental care for children, especially during the hours they spend at home while parents are at work.
Additionally, small holder farmers face labour shortages during harvest times. This, coupled with the increasing cost of labour and production, force them to rely on children to help during the harvest period. The study revealed that 73% of children started to help out on farms before they reached their 12th birthday. This means that these children miss school, hindering their academic performance.
Children are also at the receiving end of corporal punishment by both parents at home and teachers in school. The study showed that this has a negative impact on the children’s safety in their homes and at school, subsequently affecting their academic performance. This verifies and validates findings from another study conducted on ‘Child Disciplinary Methods Practiced in Schools’ in 2017 by the National Child Protection Authority which recorded the highest prevalence of corporal punishment (90.3% of children subjected to corporal punishment), in schools in the plantation areas.
Based on the identified risks for children’s wellbeing and protection in the tea industry, the study also makes recommendations for both the tea industry stakeholders and the government to address the unique challenges in the plantation community. This includes how the industry stakeholders can improve adequate access to health, education and protection services, building capacities of service providers of both government and plantation companies, community based protection mechanisms, improved working conditions for women such as breastfeeding breaks and maternity leave as well as adopt improved pricing and welfare systems to increase benefits for plantation families. The organisation reiterates the importance of government taking a lead in addressing unique challenges for families in tea plantation areas with regard to education, health and child protection issues and services.
Shyamali Gnanasena, Senior Programme Manager – Child Protection, Save the Children said, “The most crucial part in this process is connecting the public and private sector at national, district and divisional levels in order to work together for betterment of children and their families living in the estate communities.” She said the organisation was working closely with estate staff and other stakeholders to ensure a more child friendly environment, reducing child abuse, as well as establishing and carrying out Government child protection initiatives on the estates.
Sri Lanka’s leading tea producers already operate their own social investment programmes focusing upon improving welfare and conditions of the resident workforce and their families living on the estates. These companies understand that their labour force live and work in difficult and challenging conditions and that the entire sector is still struggling to overcome the neglect of the past.
Johann Rodrigo, CEO of Horana Plantations PLC said, “We found that the heart of the plantations are the mother and then the child, so we have to protect our children because they are the future of the plantations”.
The five companies, including Horana Plantations, which have already adopted the Child Protection Policy have appointed Child Protection Focal Points for each estate from among the estate staff as part of the plan. There are now 134 Children’s Clubs on these estates which allow children to participate in their own development.
Village Child Development Committees (VCDCs) have been established in 46 of the estates. They will map, identify and respond to children’s vulnerabilities. The VCDCs are connected to the Divisional Child Development Committees and are part of the Government’s Child Protection mechanism.
As a result, these estates are now connected with the child protection services at the Divisional level through the Child Rights Promotion Officers and Child Protection Officers.
These initiatives are supported by the ‘Mother and Child Friendly Tea Plantations’ programme, funded by Save the Children Hong Kong which promotes child protection and early childhood care and development standards in Sri Lanka and the global tea production industry. Save the Children’s aim is to promote ‘Ceylon Tea’ as an ethical brand globally through this approach.
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