Thousands of tea workers in India face growing hunger and poverty amid wage cuts and bigger workloads, while British companies and their subsidiaries continue to dominate the tea market and give handsome payouts to shareholders.
This warning comes today from the development agency ActionAid on International Tea Day, when campaigners will stage protests in India and the world's other tea-producing countries to speak out for better pay and conditions.
ActionAid research in three Indian regions - Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Kerala - found malnutrition and starvation among the families of many tea workers who suffer lower wages and lose welfare benefits such as sanitation, healthcare and education.
Unilever, Tata Tea and their subsidiaries, which buy and blend the leaves in well-known brands like PG Tips and Tetley, control more than half of India’s tea market. Unilever's subsidiary, Hindustan Lever, is the largest tea buyer in India. Though tea prices have fallen, shareholder dividends increased from 1.25 rupees in 1996 to 5.50 rupees in 2003.
Estimates suggest 10 million people in India rely on the tea industry to survive.
ActionAid calls on large tea buyers to raise tea prices and demands regulations in Britain and overseas to make transnational corporations accountable for the impact of their operations on communities and the environment.
"You don't need to read tea leaves to see the future looks grim for large numbers of India's tea workers and growers. It is high time the multinational companies paid fair prices and governments toughened laws to ensure corporate responsibility."
Sam Goddard, a trade campaigner for the agency, said: