A report released last Monday by British NGO War on Want and Unite, Britain’s largest union,“A Bitter Cup,” documents the precarious lives of tea processors and pickers in the developing world. While UK’s socialist daily, the Morningstar, covered the report, it has been for the most part ignored by the media, both in UK, and internationally. The silence around the report is exemplary of the larger dearth of coverage for international labor issues — it also speaks to the continued need for investigative labor journalism.

As the report documents, tea pickers in India receive around 1,220 rupees a month, the equivalent of $26. It is around 35% of a living wage. In Kenya, another major tea growing country, pickers are hired by the day and factory workers are “hired on a causal basis,” the report says, allowing employers to fire employees at will and avoid paying benefits.

The report also exposes the poor labor and living conditions in both tea-producing countries. Factory workers in Kenya lack access to dust masks and other protective clothing, while pickers in India work without clothing that can shield them from the pesticides they apply to the fields. For most families, paying for local schools is out of the question — their concern is more often whether they can afford to put food on the table. The report notes that 60 percent of youth on Indian tea estates are underweight.

The effects of low wages on workers are far reaching. In January, IRIN reported on the thriving sex industry that has developed on Kenyan tea plantations as a way for women laborers to earn more money. Consolata Awuor, a tea picker at a Unilever Tea-owned plantation, discussed her situation frankly: “Together with a few friends, we have rented a tin room in town where we provide sex and sell alcohol.”

For Awuor, sex work means that she can send her two children to school, allowing them opportunities beyond the tea industry. For Unilever, sex work represents a danger to the bottom line. The company’s HIV program director bluntly justified the education and condom distribution and program by economic rational (and implicitly explained why living wages are not an option in Unilever’s mind): “[If employees with HIV] pick less tea it means that the factory will have to operate at below optimum, so they will be forced to bring in more manpower, which leads to additional costs.”

“A Bitter Cup” does more than document the systemic abuses of the tea industry; it serves as proof that, in the report’s words, “voluntary codes of conduct for corporations have failed.” The conditions documented in Kenya and India happen in spite of corporate initiatives like theEthical Tea Partnership, a labor monitoring organization run by a group of major tea brands. Or Ethical Trading Initiative, which commits signatories to ensure workers a living wage at all points of their supply chains, and includes major UK supermarkets among its signatories.

Recent strikes in both countries suggest that workers are struggling for their rights, but, for the most part, the global media has not shed light on their situations. Last Monday, the same day “A Bitter Cup” was released, The Times of India reported on strikes at the Doloo and Benodenagar Tea Estates in Assam, India. Workers there claimed management was not depositing money into their Provident Funds, India’s version of Social Security. In Kenya, labor strikes in January at tea warehouses in Nairobi were documented only because they precipitated a drop in the price of tea, as reported at The Standard. (Read and watch more on Kenyan unions at The Huffington Post.)

Beatrice, a Kenyan tea picker featured in the report, reminds us of the unexposed social failings of our global supply chain. Paid less than a nickel per pound of tea, Beatrice often returns home with little over a dollar in wages a day. A single mother of two, most of her income is spent paying for her family’s food — the days she does not work, the family does not eat. Clearly, what is a refreshing drink for some is sweat and suffering for others.

Articles about global trade and labor issues produced by The Investigative Fund: Mexico’s Squid Sweatshops, Dirty Gold and Slash and Burn