06/05/2012 04:16 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

The Last of the Tea Pluckers

What's the difference between an illiterate tea plucker and a Microsoft engineer?

One generation. And Fair Trade funds.

This spring as I traveled through tea gardens in Southern India and Sri Lanka, I encountered what could be the last generation of tea pluckers. For centuries, tea leaves have been harvested by women who manually snap off the top two leaves and a bud at the top of tea bushes. The work is tiring, repetitive and doesn't require a high school degree. All the tea pluckers I spoke with had left school by sixth grade or earlier, just like their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents before them.

But change is in the tea leaves.

After last year's split between Fair Trade USA and their European parent, Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO), I decided to visit some of our suppliers so I could see first-hand the role that Fair Trade funds play in the communities we source from.

While India's tea gardens have historically offered their workers relatively better employment conditions than those endured by surrounding subsistence farmers, Fair Trade tea gardens are raising the bar. In addition to providing working conditions that meet International Labor Organization standards, Fair Trade gardens allocate an additional royalty paid by brand owners (like Honest Tea) that puts the children of tea pluckers on a path away from the tea garden. Today Fair Trade certified tea represents less than one percent of global tea purchases, but in the U.S. it has been growing 38% annually for the past ten years, far outpacing single digit growth for the tea category.

In the Fair Trade gardens I visited, the children were required to stay in school through high school graduation. Fair Trade royalties subsidized the purchase of computers, books and even chemistry lab materials. Though the classrooms are crowded (40-45 students per room), the children have access to materials and facilities that would put many American schools to shame.

Their economic motivation is clear. The daily wage for tea pluckers (mandated and enforced by state governments) varies from $1.75 per day in Northern India to $5.00 per day in Sri Lanka. By contrast, the starting salary for a computer engineer in Southern India is close to $150 per day.

I asked dozens of high school students about their career aspirations. While engineer, doctor, astronaut and teacher frequently made the list, "tea plucker" did not. In fact, not a single student expressed an interest in staying on the garden, even as a manager.

I asked the owners of several tea gardens whether they were worried about educating themselves out of a workforce. They were confident there would still be tens of millions of people from poorer Northern India who would migrate to receive the relatively high wages and on-site health care. There are still several generations of agricultural workers to come, which is one of the reasons Honest Tea has decided to endorse Fair Trade USA's Fair Trade for All campaign, with its commitment to expand the reach and impact of Fair Trade by expanding the kinds of growers who can be certified, without weakening the standards for working conditions or sales premiums.

Will the world of premium tea survive? While mechanical harvesters cannot operate on the steep hills where tea is grown, in many tea gardens the women are now using shears, a metal device that clips the top of the tea bush and collects the leaves, increasing their daily yield. Most processing facilities now have sorters and sensors that are able to separate and clip off the stems and twigs, tedious work that used to be done by hand. And tea buyers like me still end up with quality tea leaves

So as Fair Trade tea continues to grow, don't shed a tear for the fading days of hand-picked leaves. But feel free to lose sleep over India's next challenge -- creating enough good-paying jobs to satisfy the rising expectations of millions of sons and daughters from the nation's largest sector as they move off the fields and into the white collar workforce.