This month, I travelled with Edgar to Taiwan to seek out the very best tea for you to enjoy next season. In the first of a special series on Taiwanese tea, I've found out a typical day in the life of a tea picker and how a skill shortage is driving up their wages.
We’ve all seen them: pictures of beautiful young ladies in traditional costume delicately picking tea against the backdrop of secluded misty mountains. How peaceful and quaint. But step onto a tea garden in Taiwan and you will notice something quite out of place: smartphones. Everyone has a smartphone in their hand or in their pocket. We’ve all read stories in the news about workers on large gardens in areas like Assam suffering slave-like conditions. And let’s be frank whilst we work with the best gardens in terms of worker’s conditions, in most countries tea picking is considered unskilled manual labour, so you don’t see many smartphones on a tea garden. So what’s going on in Taiwan?
Let’s start with Taiwan in general. Compared to other tea producing countries, Taiwan has a high standard of living. Minimum wage works out at about £500 per month (at the current exchange rate), compared with neighbouring China whose minimum wage varies from around £120 to £200 per month depending on the region. BUT the people who pick and process Taiwanese teas earn much more than minimum wage.
Tea picking and processing is somewhat of a dying art in Taiwan. The country is dotted with cool cosmopolitan cities full of restaurants, bars, clubs, universities and shiny (air-conditioned) offices; all connected by a high-speed rail network (bullet trains!). For the majority of young people, city life is far more appealing than earning a living clambering up steep tea fields with heavy baskets of tea on their backs in a remote mountain village, with not a craft beer bar in sight! But this is good news for those that stay. With the demand for tea high and a massive shortage of people to make it, the pickers and makers are in a very strong position.
So how does it work? The industry operates differently than in other countries. Rather than the large estates that we see in India and Africa that employ a permanent workforce, Taiwan’s tea is generally grown on smaller family-run farms. Pickers operate in ‘crews’ who travel between gardens, working from high altitude down to the lower altitude gardens.
Generally, they will be at each garden for five to seven days during which time food and accommodation is provided. Once they are finished up there it’s straight on to the next one. The atmosphere on a Taiwanese tea garden is pretty relaxed. On Ali Shan the day starts at 7 am and finishes at lunchtime. During picking time, the pickers chat with each other, chat on their smartphones and go for regular fag breaks. When the clock strikes 12 they find a comfy place to perch and lunch along with a warm can of beer. Lunch is an exciting looking box of noodles, rice, boiled egg, some kind of stewed meat and steamed veg… much more exciting than a cheese sandwich and a packet of crisps. After lunch the tea is weighed and the money dished out. The tea is then driven up to the processing unit and the pickers have the rest of the afternoon off. There is a bit of a downside for the farm owners, however. Mr Shih of a garden we visited in Sun Moon Lake grumbled that back in the day the picking standard was much easier to control – one bud and two to three leaves. Now they pick one bud and three or four leaves because they are paid by weight and that extra leaf makes all the difference. When I asked Mr Shih why he wasn’t more strict with the pickers he told me: ‘You have to be good to the pickers, if they don’t like you they don’t come back next year – the pickers are the real boss.’
Processing is done in a similar way; making the rolled oolongs that Taiwan is famous for requires high levels of skill and there is also an extreme level of competition between gardens. Therefore expert tea makers are brought in during the harvesting season to make the very best tea possible. A tea master will have a crew of assistants who travel with them from garden to garden. Those with a good reputation will be brought back year on year and can charge a premium. Mr Chiu of our Ali Shan tea garden compared the tea masters to top chefs. Each chef has their own special methods which produce a distinct flavour, so each year they bring back the same chef to ensure continuity of their product.
So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty – what does a tea picker earn? Well, it varies from place to place. The more remote the garden or the more difficult the terrain, the more they charge. We asked each of the gardens how much they paid their pickers (as we always do); in Li Shan, the remotest area we visited, Mr Chang tells us he pays the equivalent of £10 for 1 jin (or 600g) of tea picked. The tea master who comes to make the tea is paid £200 per day and his assistants are paid about £80. These are good amounts even by UK standards. In Sun Moon Lake pickers are paid $600 (about £500) per WEEK which is the minimum MONTHLY wage in Taiwan.
There are no two ways about it, Taiwanese teas are expensive. But when you buy Canton Pouchong, you not only get silky, floral, fruity deliciousness; you can also feel good that the people who are making it have a great life.
Our values and ethics
Ultimately Canton’s values are expressed in the integrity of our product and our sourcing policies. Canton tea tastes better because we source the best and build on relationships. We can only do that by treating the valued artisan farmers with respect and paying the market price.