The diverse narratives offered by women and men made us see not only the gendered structure of workforce in the region but also the elitist aspect of the discourse which characterizes women from the Black Sea as rugged and hardworking.
Nowadays, the awareness craze embracing the dictum ‘seize the day’ often suggests us to give a thought to where the goods and services we consume come from and how and by whom they are produced. Yet, political economists have long been emphasizing how essential it is to treat the different stages the commodities we consume pass through –from production to consumption– as links in a chain for demonstrating the distribution relations in commodity production. If we adopt this approach with respect to tea production –the focus of this piece– the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about tea production are the advertisement images of gardens that stretch over green hillsides in exotic geographies and women dressed in local clothing picking tea over the slopes. This imagery obscures the visibility of the harsh working conditions of the female workers who pick tea. Despite their difficult working conditions, women who pick tea get the lowest share in distribution in a production process which involves various stages such as picking, processing, transporting, packaging, and marketing. The main reason for this is that the capitalist mode of production, by its nature, makes social relations in the production process invisible through the market. When it comes to tea, what is visible is a packet of tea which we see in the supermarket shelves, in other words, in the circulation area, and we have almost no information about the production process of that tea. The purpose of this article is to make visible the labor of women who shoulder the main burden in the production of packets of tea we see on the market shelves as well as to shed light on how a single commodity changed the fate of a geography. In so doing, we want to show how the sexist division of labor in the production of tea is being deepened and reproduced even though tea production no longer suffices as a source of livelihood.
Tea is a commodity on which poems are written and aphorisms and maxims are uttered; it is an integral part of our daily lives and our conversations with our friends. The introduction of this product to Turkey actually took place under rather specific conditions. The story of the first discovery of tea in China 3000 years ago expressed in the famous legend of a man, who becomes less sleepy when a leaf of tea drops into his glass from the tree under which he is sitting, could not have taken place in the geography of Turkey. This is because tea has been introduced by the state itself to a particular geography of Turkey with laborious conditions which do not allow for the cultivation of other agricultural products. In this way, the mild and rainy climate created by the Kaçkar Mountains which formed a shield was used to grow tea seedlings brought from Georgia. The main motivation here was to prevent migration by providing the commodity of tea as an agricultural and industrial means of livelihood to the villagers who had difficulties making a living in mountainous terrain. For this purpose, a law on tea was passed three months after the establishment of the Republic. However, it was only in the 1950s that the people living in the region adopted tea production and that the economic and social structure of the Eastern Black Sea began to be shaped by tea production.
As social relations were transformed radically with the introduction of tea, an industrial input, to the region, the sexist division of labor at the core of these relations was also restructured and the already existing elements of inequality were reproduced. In order to understand this transformation, let’s first take a look at what women and men were doing in their everyday lives with respect to the patriarchal relations before the coming of tea to the regions. Before tea cultivation, women in the Eastern Black Sea were generally responsible for the animal husbandry and the farming of products such as beans, cabbage, and corn, which were produced in limited amounts in the region, as well as undertaking all the domestic work in the households to which they married into. At that time, men generally went to stranger lands work as roustabout in ship business or in the construction sector. The fact that women had to undertake all work because the men in the households are away, both inside and outside the household, in a region with a harsh nature, played an important role in shaping the widespread stereotype of “strong and rugged Black Sea woman”.
Encouragement of tea production by the state since the 1940s caused women to undertake tea production in Rize and its vicinity, where men were still in stranger lands. As tea, an industrial input, created new employment opportunities, men began to return to their hometowns; however, they were often not interested in the tea picking, on the pretext that they could not collect tea like the women who had already learned how to do it before them. Thus, since the introduction of tea to the region, picking tea was described as “woman’s job”. Tea was so influential in reshaping the patriarchal relation in the region that, for instance, the filling and emptying of tea baskets were associated with women’s reproductive functions and men often avoided carrying the baskets. The inclusion of men in the tea sector mostly took the form of being employed as workers in factories where tea was processed or as officials in ÇAYKUR.
As a result, after the introduction of tea to the region, the divisions between men’s and women’s work had deepened. In addition to working in tea factories, men began working as fisherman, seaman, tradesman, and chauffeur, which were professions common in the region and performed outside the household. In animal husbandry, milking the animals was women’s job and slaughtering the animals was men’s job. In fact, this is closely related to the historical identification of milk with purity and motherhood, and blood with violence, power, and masculinity. The division of labor also differentiated according to the “quality” of the jobs. Women became responsible for the sale of small amounts of vegetables and fruits produced in the district or the village market, and men became responsible for the sale of animals. Today, even in the center of Rize, you can see few women selling agricultural products such as kale, corn, and tangerine which they grow in their gardens, as well as animal products such as milk and butter, which they display on a wax cloth. The fact that women sell such small amounts of products is closely related to the perception that selling products grown in the garden or obtained from one or two animals in the village is perceived as an “unqualified” job rather than a “serious” business like trade. Women “make” tea, firewood, and herbs; men “work” at the factory.
What we will share in the next part of this piece is based on our observations from a field study we conducted in eight districts of Rize in the summer of 2018. One of our main objectives in that research was to understand how tea differs from other agricultural products. The fact that questions we asked were answered differently by the participants shifted our focus to the contrasts between discourses of women and men on picking tea. Male participants often stated that tea cultivation is quite easy. One of the statements uttered by man in more than one occasion was that tea is a “stupid” plant which requires less labor compared to wheat grown in Anatolia and that tea yields crops each year once it is fertilized and pruned. When we asked the opinion of women on tea cultivation, without exception, they all said that picking tea, mostly in hilly areas from the early hours of the morning, is an extremely difficult and demanding job. The diverse narratives offered by women and men made us see not only the gendered structure of workforce in the region but also the elitist aspect of the discourse which characterizes women from the Black Sea as rugged and hardworking. Although women sometimes embraced these stereotypes, they often complained that their labor was rendered invisible and wanted the difficulty of their work to be recognized.
The statements of women from different generations also differed. Women who are over 70 years of age, that is, those who were producing crops before the introduction of tea, and who had picked tea by their hands, were saying that things were very difficult in the past compared to today . Of course, it is important to note here that in the 1980, women began to use scissors to pick tea. According to those who were involved in tea picking for many years, today, tea was cut with scissors rather easily. Old women were actually raising their voices about their invisible labor at that time: “We used to pick tea with our hands. Our palms would be cut. Today, tea picking is rather easy.” These women also narrated that they used to work very hard at the household into which they were married, that the mothers-in-laws took care of their children while their husbands were working in other places, and that they also undertook all kinds of work, from domestic work to animal husbandry and agriculture. On the other hand, gender roles determined not only the relations between men and women, but also the relations between the brides and mother-in-law. Women who married into large families had to undertake all the work in the household after their husbands went away to work. A woman who narrated that she suffered a lot at the hands of her mother-in-law when her husband was away said that now her husband does not make the brides work and instead hires workers to pick tea. This example caught our attention as it also demonstrates that most of the time it is men who make the decision about who will work and won’t.
One of our most striking observations about the elderly women we encountered in the villages was that some of these women suffered from their waist being dislocated. The main reason for this was that women had to carry heavy tea baskets over very long distances for many years.
Patriarchal property relations in tea production
Whereas one important reason for gender inequality in tea production is that tea-picking is seen as a woman’s job, the other is the patriarchal property relations in the Eastern Black Sea region from past to present. In general terms, the spread of private land ownership due to capitalist development has a very important meaning in terms of patriarchal relations. The capitalist system, according to which the owner of the means of production can claim the right to appropriate surplus value, also feeds the patriarchal relations by way of men’s ownership of means of production. As stated by Ece Kocabıçak in her piece on Çatlak Zemin website, the exclusion of women from land ownership in agriculture allows men to impose gender division of labor and appropriate the value women produce. In Eastern Black Sea this is observed in the exclusion of women from the ownership of tea gardens. In this geography, women generally do not get a share from the inheritance, and in exceptional cases when they want to receive, they are judged by the society, their relatives, and neighbors. Men justify women’s exclusion from inheritance by claiming that when women marry they will benefit from their husbands’ property. Interestingly enough, the religious and nationalistic values which they embrace tightly in other situations, can be denied when it comes to matters of inheritance.
The manifestation of gender division of labor in tea cultivation in young generations
In order to understand the changing international relationships and dynamic in tea production, it is necessary to first note that tea is no longer a source of livelihood for the majority of people living in Eastern Black Sea region. An important reason as to why it is still being cultivated is that tea does not require maintenance through the year and the picking season coincides with the summer months. Therefore, even if the household migrates from the villages, they can still continue tea production. Most households that migrate from the region prefer to hire wage workers from the region to pick their tea in short periods of time when they return to their villages in the summer. The majority of these wage workers in Turkey are women, but in the East Black Sea region, they are mostly migrant men from Georgia.
However, there are still many households in Rize, albeit reduced in number, that engage in tea production. During the field research, we also interviewed male and female students who are studying at the university in Rize and who are from households that engage in tea cultivation. Our observations of the ways in which these students engage in tea production provided us with important clues to understand the gender division of labor manifested in younger generations. We held separate interviews with four students, two women and two men. We had the chance to go to the villages of the female students, one village we visited was Andon, in the city center of Rize and the other in Kalkandere. Both students stated that they pick tea with their mothers between the months of June and August. Interestingly, they both help their fathers –one runs a restaurant, the other is a shopkeeper– after school and on the weekends. Both of them were having a hard time, of course, trying to undertake so much work while studying. When we asked for the phone number of one of the students to communicate with her, we understood better how much she suffered from this situation. She said that she does not want to fix her broken phone because her father calls and tells her to drop by the shop at every opportunity. Her broken phone provided her a space of freedom. The other female student explained the difficulties of picking tea. In the region they were located, organic tea production was carried out. Many male participants we interviewed in the coffeehouse of the village have stated that organic agriculture is easy since it did not require any fertilizers and the yield had decreased with the transition to organic agriculture. However, this young woman picking tea told us that they were not getting so tired when they were using chemical fertilizers, and that it is much more difficult to carry the tea waste they take from ÇAYKUR on their backs to the gardens on the hills and to mix this waste to the soil in order to increase yield.. A truck of tea waste was barely enough for 200 square meters. During the field study, as it is the case with this example, we have often faced the fact that we can get accurate information about tea production only when we listen to the voices of the women who are doing the work.
It is noteworthy that the families of these two students reflect the gender division of labor within the family because neither of their fathers picked tea. What is even more interesting is that they both had brothers who were about to graduate from high school and neither of them had even set foot in the tea garden. But both young women were working at their father’s businesses and studied at the university and collected tea.
If we focus on our observations about two male students who were going to the university and whose families were also engaged in tea production, we can say that these students were closely interested in tea, but their responsibility was to make sure that the tea is transported by car and sold. Whereas the household from Güneysulu was hiring wage laborers, in the household from the center of Rize, women of the household were picking the tea. The fathers in both households were making the decisions about when, what amount, and to whom to sell the tea. When faced with any sales related issues, these two male students consulted either their fathers or grandfathers. Both of the male students had cars.
For sure, these observations regarding the young generations do not apply to all young women and men from Rize. According to the previous generation, young people no longer want to deal with tea cultivation. The fact that the majority of the households we interviewed stated that they do not think that their children would engage in tea production, is an indicator of this situation. However, our observations about those who are engaged in tea production show us that when there is no disintegration in the social structure due to migration, the sexist division of labor in tea production is constantly reproduced and deepened.
*This article is generally based on our study “Kuşaktan Kuşağa Çay Tarımında Kadın Emeği” [Women’s Labor in Tea Production from One Generation to Another] which is published in the book Aramızda Kalmasın: Kır, Kent ve Ötesinde Toplumsal Cinsiyet [Let’s Not Keep It Between Ourselves: Gender Beyond the Rural and the Urban] edited by Özlem Şendeniz and published last week.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan
 Beller-Hann, I. ve Hann, C. 2012. İki Buçuk Yaprak Çay: Doğu Karadeniz’de Devlet, Piyasa, Kimlik, trans. Pınar Öztamur, İstanbul: İletişim.
 Bramwell, R. 2008. “Blood and Milk: Constructions of Female Bodily Fluids in Western Society”, Women & Health, 34 (4): 85-96.
 Beller-Hann, I. ve Hann, C. 2012.
 We have publically shared our findings based on this research in the article titled “Rize’de Çay Tarımının Çelişkili Sürekliliği” in the 150th volume of Toplum ve Bilim Journal.
 Kocabıçak, E. 2018. “Patriarchal labor exploitation in agriculture and its implications for feminist politics” https://en.catlakzemin.com/patriarchal-labor-exploitation-in-agriculture-and-its-implications-for-feminist-politics/