Supply Chain Characteristics that Impact Traceability

Traceability Takeaways

  • The risk of forced labor and child labor is present in tea cultivation and harvesting across the world. Because of the widespread nature of this risk, traceability efforts that focus on screening out particular geographic locations may not be the most effective strategy for tea supply chains. Instead, efforts should be made to map supply chains, understand potential risks based on geographic footprints or suppliers, and prioritize suppliers with heightened risk for more robust due diligence. 
  • Labor risks exist primarily at the cultivation and harvesting nodes of the supply chain. In order to assess labor conditions at these nodes, traceability solutions must be able to reach the farm, plantation, or estate level.  
  • In the top producing countries, tea is cultivated on both smallholder farms and large production plantations, where the risk of child labor and forced labor is present. Many non-niche or non-single origin tea product lines combine tea grown by different types of producers (like smallholder farms or large estates) and from numerous different geographic origins to create specific blends at processing facilities. Widespread use of blending means that tracing tea leaves back to their point of origin is challenging at a large scale. This can be addressed through comprehensive reporting and recording of all transactions between any two parties in the tea supply chain, such as between grower and buyer or between blender and manufacturer, and volumes of product contributing to blended batches. Detailed documentation about these transactions can then be made available to downstream actors when relevant, depending on the specific product traceability approach required.  

Nature of Labor Rights Risk/Vulnerable Workers

Forced Labor or Trafficking in Persons cited by U.S. Government

Child Labor cited by U.S. Government

Risk of Forced Labor or Trafficking in Persons cited by other source

Risk of Child Labor cited by other source

Documented presence of migrant workers

Documented presence of other vulnerable workers

Documented presence or significant likelihood of third-party labor recruiters

Features of Production and Supply Chain

Large numbers of dispersed, unorganized, or informal small producers or other worksites

Multiple points of aggregation, co-mingling, and/or transformation across supply chain

Complex/opaque supply chains and/or lack of vertical integration

High degree of flexibility in procurement practices of downstream entities

  • Both smallholder farms and large plantations contribute significantly to global tea supply chains. The primary site of tea production varies between countries; smallholder farms play a major role in tea production in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Vietnam, and Indonesia, whereas in India,14Rowlatt, Justin and Jane Deith. “The Bitter Story Behind the UK’s National Drink.” BBC, 8 September 2015, Uganda,15Ezra, Munyambonera, Paul Corti, et al. “Uganda’s Tea Sub-Sector: A Comparative Review of Trends, Challenges and Coordination Failures.” Economic Policy Research Centre, vol. 119, September 2014, pp. 1-22. and Malawi,16The Malawi Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights, Malawi Tea Research Project, 2008, 70 to 90 percent of tea production is on large estates and plantations. Large plantations often work directly with muti-national tea companies and organizations to streamline production. 
  • Tea from large estates and smallholder farms is often aggregated and mixed at tea processing facilities, at times in a different country than where it was grown.17U.S Department of State, 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, 2021, Smallholder farmers sometimes must sell their harvest to larger tea estates or processing facilities due to poverty, debt, or inequitable power relations.18The Malawi Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights, Malawi Tea Research Project. 2008.  
  • Processing facilities often source tea from multiple countries and do not always keep track of its origin. This makes the tea difficult to trace, especially once it has been blended.19Lokunarangodage, Chandana Vindika Kumara et al. “Constraints and Compliances of Traceability in Low Grown Orthodox Black Tea Manufacturing Process.” American Journal of Food Science and Technology, 2015, Vol. 3, No. 3, 74-81. DOI:10.12691/ajfst-3-3-4. 

Distribution of Labor Risk in Various Production Areas

Scale or nature of risk varies significantly based on geographic area of production

Scale or nature of risk is strongly associated with certain types of suppliers/entities

Scale or nature of risk is present across multiple tiers or nodes of supply chain (including in associated downstream or upstream goods)

  • Labor risk in tea production is primarily associated with upstream nodes. Forced and child labor risk is higher on tea plantations, large estates, and smallholder farms, where the work may be undesirable and hazardous, rely on a vulnerable workforce, or be associated with low wages and/or wage deductions.20Verité, Trafficking Risk in Sub-Saharan African Supply Chains.    
  • The size of the tea sector in India and Sri Lanka means that there is a high risk of child labor and forced labor. In some cases, workers have reported being unfairly recruited and unable to pay their recruitment debts, as well as earning less than a livable wage.21Rowlatt, Justin and Jane Deith. “The Bitter Story Behind the UK’s National Drink.” BBC, 8 September 2015. 
  • The risk of child labor is higher on smallholder farms than on larger plantations or estates because there is less regulatory oversight. However, while child labor is less likely on large farms, the risks are still present.22The Malawi Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights. Malawi Tea Research Project, 2008,   
  • Forced labor risk has been associated with a variety of suppliers and entities, including both certified plantations and non–certified plantations. As such, even when dealing with certified goods, companies should do their due diligence when sourcing tea from geographies known to be at higher risk for labor and human rights abuses.23The University of Sheffield. Labour Exploitation is Endemic in Global Tea and Cocoa Industries, International Study Finds, 31 May 2018,   When a company’s upstream sourcing footprint includes high-risk areas, using models that provide information on individual growers or the regions of growers contributing to a batch can be helpful in conducting further due diligence and on-the-ground assessments of labor conditions.  

Linked Upstream and Downstream Risks

Risk in Nodes in Tea Production

The cultivation and harvesting stage of tea production begins with a yearlong nurturing and replanting process in hot and humid regions. After the initial planting, tea plants take roughly four years to mature, at which point they are hand-picked. Forced labor and child labor risk is highest at this stage. Within hours of being picked, the tea is transported to a factory for the withering, rolling, fermenting, and drying processes. Once the tea is dried, it is sold to tea companies for the blending and packing processes.24Tippayawong, Korrakot Y., Punnakorn Teeratidyangkul, et al. “Analysis and Improvement of a Tea Value Chain.” International Association of Engineers, vol. 2, July 2017,   While processed tea can be sold as a finished product, tea vendors may also blend it with other types of processed tea to add value, contributing to the opacity in the supply chain.25 All Things Supply Chain, The Amazing Supply Chain of a Cup of Tea, 28 August 2017,,worldwide%20with%20this%20essential%20product.   In this stage, smallholder farmers’ tea will often be mixed with higher quality tea from large plantations. Once properly blended and packaged, the tea is ready for retail.  

Cultivation and harvesting

Processing and blending

Distribution and marketing

Retail of final product

Associated Downstream Goods and Consumer Sectors

Food and Beverage

Tea is the world’s second most consumed beverage, with more than 3.5 billion cups consumed per day.

Top Global Countries

  1. China26List of exporters for the selected product in 2021. Product: 0902 Tea, whether or not flavoured. ITC Trade Map,
  2. Sri Lanka 
  3. Kenya 
  4. India 
  5. United Arab Emirates 
  6. Poland 
  7. Germany 
  8. Vietnam 
  9. Japan 
  10. United Kingdom 
  1. China27 Crops and livestock products. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2021, . 
  2. India 
  3. Kenya 
  4. Turkey 
  5. Sri Lanka 
  6. Vietnam 
  7. Indonesia 
  8. Bangladesh 
  9. Argentina 
  10. Uganda 


Examples & Resources: Traceability Efforts Associated With Tea