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Sri Lanka's forgotten Tamils

Rejected by the rest of the Tamil population and ignored by the Sinhalese authorities, tea workers who migrated from Tamil Nadu centuries ago are exploited in the plantations of the Sri Lankan highlands

Her hands are cut and swollen from years of hard labour on the steep slopes of the tea plantation. She smiles, but the rest of her face is tense from the weight of the basket she carries on her forehead.

In this basket are some of the world’s finest tea leaves, delicate and intensely green. Carefully chosen and hand-picked by tea-pickers in Sri Lanka, they will be sold to the biggest brands in the market, put into tea bags and distributed across Europe.

But for Yogaletchumy, the tea bag that ends up in our "cuppa" represents painful long hours of labour, for a miserable salary barely sufficient to provide for her family. "Everyday is a struggle," she says. "We have so little money."

Tamil tea picker in Sri Lanka

The average wage for a tea-picker is a pound a day, just enough to buy food for the family. Women work in the field, men work in the factory or in the administration, and often entire families live on the estate.

Accommodation is traditionally provided by the company in the form of "lines", a military term designating rows of Spartan aligned rooms, six or seven people crammed into each one.
 
Some of these rooms were built decades ago. Grim and dirty, they do not have running water or electricity and children sleep in the same bed as their parents.

"We did not have enough space, so we are building another room on the family vegetable garden. We build it in our free time, me and my husband, with the little money we can spare from his salary, because he is doing well in the administration. It is difficult to live in these small rooms. We have two teenage daughters, they need more privacy," says Yogaletchumy.

The tea plantation is all her life. She grew up here, helping at home while her mother was picking leaves. In fact, her grandmother worked here too, and before her, her great-grandmother. Tamil people have worked at the Pedro Estate, in Nuwara Eliya, for generations.

A British institution

Although tea has become a mainstay of the Sri Lankan economy, it has not always grown on the island. British colonists introduced it to what was then Ceylon and developed tea plantations in the high country, the mountainous central part of the island.

Pedro Estate is one of the oldest plantations, and like all the others it employs the descendants of the Indian Tamil workforce brought by the British from Tamil Nadu in south India.

Pedro Tea Estate, Nuwara Eliya

Sri Lankan Tamils, who have lived on the islands for thousands of years, look down on them because they come from lower castes. "Tamils would rather marry Sinhalese than tea plantations Tamils," explains Amal Jayasinghe, the Agence France Press bureau chief in Colombo.

Ignored by both sides, they are victims of the conflict. "The Tamils, they think we are not like them," says Jagian Morgan, a field officer at the estate, "and the government does not help us because ethnically we are Tamils."

After Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, tea plantation Tamils were even denied Sri Lankan citizenship – an injustice that has since been corrected, but remains deeply anchored in their mentality. Even they consider themselves as underclass citizens.

"For the tea workers the living conditions are not good, there is no welfare. The government said that they would have good houses and good salaries but did not give it to them," explains an employee in the administration of the estate.

"The children are studying in schools, but they have no facilities. No computers, no books – and they cannot always pay for their education," he says. "Before, I was studying, I passed Advanced Level in Tamil, Geography and Hindu Culture. I got good results," says Vane, who works in the tea shop at the estate. “I went to the government school, but we still had to pay fees, I don't know why. Other children they don't pay to go to school, but we had to”.

The trade union representing the workers is part of the problem rather than the solution. CWC, the trade union in charge in Nuwara Eliya, where Pedro Estate is located, has a lot of power in the plantation and decides what the tea workers get.

"We tell our problems to the union leaders and they should tell the management and find a solution together. But the leaders, they do not care and we cannot get directly to the management," says Jagian Morgan.

"The union is no help. It forces us to work even in bad conditions and we have to pay them 65 rupees a month to be part of it. If we are not part of it, then we cannot work in the plantations. And if the salary increases, then the membership goes up to 75 rupees too," he adds.

Samosa

According to local journalists, this is part of CWC’s strategy to keep control over the area. It is in the interests of the trade union to keep tea workers' wages low in order to ensure their "loyalty", or rather dependence, by generating the need for support.

CWC also forbids tea workers in Nuwara Eliya to go and work in the midlands, where the pay is higher, as it does not exert influence in that part of the country.

Contacted by phone, CWC’s president refused to comment on the accusations.

Righting the wrongs

Diverse programmes have been developed – or at least advertised – to improve the tea workers' living conditions. The government has run a number of housing schemes, where loans are given to workers in order to buy land and build their own houses.

In Melfort Estate, near the ancient city of Kandy, the official line is that thanks to this programme, 80 per cent of housing problems have been resolved. However, workers inside the estate explain that the loan is too expensive for them to afford. Exception or rule, it is hard to tell, but a quick visit in their lines reveals the same appalling conditions – the rooms are overcrowded and insalubrious.

Old people particularly suffer; because there is no real pension system, retirement is never an option. In fact, once the tea workers stop working in the plantation, the little welfare support provided by the state and the company stops immediately.

Women often suffer from back and spinal injuries due to the nature of their work, but if the neck is hurting from carrying the tea basket, it will have to be working in road construction or selling vegetables in the street. Sometimes a family has to survive on one person’s income. Lunch is often skipped, as is breakfast.

Stanley, who writes board messages in Pedro Estate, has had to support his wife and three children by himself since his wife's head became too weak to carry the basket's weight. Both of them look like they are in their sixties, but are in fact in their late thirties.

Promotion inside the estate is difficult too. "It is possible for a tea worker to be promoted to Kangamy, which is the function of field officer, just above the workers, and some have been promoted as field staff officers. But none have been promoted to manager yet," says Melfort Estate’s director.

For their children though, things can be different if they work hard enough. "It is possible for their children to get out of the estate if they work hard. I know one of them that became a doctor," adds the director.

Kelany Valley Plantation, the company that acquired Pedro Estate in 1995, has set up a programme to improve tea workers' lives. It is advertised on the package of the tea sold in the "tea centre" of the estate.

“Improvement to worker housing is an ongoing, annual process in which the company’s financial inputs have been augmented by donor and government funding, channelled through institutions specially established for this purpose,” says Kavi Seneviratne, Kelany Valley Plantation’s press officer.

No doubt progress has been made since 1995, but it still seems rather excessive for the company to declare itself ‘The Ethical Tea Brand of the World’. A good image can be a determining asset for tea estates if they want to enter the European market, but few checks are actually done by European companies who simply by the leaves at Colombo’s exchange.

The importance of the tea industry for Sri Lanka is immense. It is an asset so important that the dramatic drop in the trade price of tea back in February 2009 was one of the most important factors that brought Sri Lanka’s balance of payment near bankruptcy.

Tea is also a source of pride in Sri Lanka, and everywhere they go around the country, travellers are sure to be offered a cup. But despite its status as a national symbol, the people who work so hard to produce it are abandoned on all sides.


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