New Internationalist

The true cost of your cup of tea

tea picker [Related Image]
A tea picker in Sri Lanka. © Luca Picardi

It is 6.30am in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, and the sun has just risen to reveal the distant peaks of the Knuckle Mountain Range. Men and women file out of a tumbledown Hindu temple nestled on a quiet hillside. They tread along stony paths in flip-flops or bare feet up into the slopes above. Once they reach the elevated tea fields the temple goers fan out: the men clutching curved kokaththa knives go one way, to manage plant overgrowth; the women head for the harvest-ready plants with long leaf-picking sticks.

Under a high-altitude sun and immersed in the bucolic landscape, tea cultivators toil into the mid-afternoon breaking only for intermittent rain showers. Surrounded by bloodthirsty leeches and poisonous snakes, hand tea cultivation is bruising work that demands painstaking attention; pickers choose only the greenest leaves from each bud by hand, and trimmers maintain all plants level by eye.

Finally, once the minimum tealeaf quotas are met, the women carry the day’s pickings, collected in large sacks, back down the hillside to be weighed before they are transported to a nearby processing factory up at the top of the valley. An average 18-kilo haul brings in around 380 rupees ($3).

This laborious daily ritual has hardly changed for Sri Lanka’s upcountry Tamils since their ancestors were brought over by the British from Southern India to work on the Sinhalese-majority island’s tea and coffee plantations in the 19th century. And while British Ceylon may no longer exist, the harsh working and living conditions faced by those involved in the primary stages of Ceylon tea production continue.

Although citizenship was finally granted to all stateless Persons of Indian Origin in 2003, most tea pickers in Sri Lanka still live without housing and land rights or access to basic services. Today’s upcountry Tamils, who make up around five per cent of the country’s population, live in the same two-room dwellings that the British had built for their forebears. The families residing in these shacks do so without running water or electricity, meaning that coal-fired cook stoves become the main source of light and heating, which in these poorly ventilated homes comes with the noxious potential for inducing respiratory disease.

Almost without exception, the companies that own the tea estates that the plantation Tamils work on also own the settlements that they reside in. This arrangement means that tea pickers have no official tenure rights, effectively tying them to work in exchange for a fragile right to housing. With the notion of officialized pension structures a distant dream, women regularly work well into old age to support themselves.

Moreover, in spite of their newly acquired citizenship, many tea pickers still struggle to procure the correct documentation to access healthcare and education. Linguistic, cultural and geographic barriers combine to hamper their full integration into the national welfare services, and the tea companies’ ownership of housing discourages the government from intervening in these Tamils’ situation. This combination of landlessness and social ostracism creates a situation that effectively ties many upcountry Tamils to their plantations and a cycle of perpetual poverty.

The 2012 UNDP Sri Lanka Human Development Report identified people in the estate sector, together with those affected by the conflict in the north, as the communities facing the most extreme poverty. This is a reality that belies the International Monetary Fund’s 2010 reclassification of Sri Lanka as a middle-income country. But a striking paradox exists. This is because the country’s economic success is partially built on the development of Ceylon tea. The island is the joint third largest tea producer in the world, and tea is the third biggest sector in its economy, yet here in the Hill Country it’s clear that the tea field workers are not sharing in this billion-dollar industry.

While government rhetoric on this issue has been consistently improving – the latest budgetary provisions were announced in 2012 to improve access of services for tea pickers – the reality of deprived conditions for upcountry Tamils is scarcely improving. In 2014 tea pickers remain ensconced in a form of caste system that is binding them to extreme poverty.

Whatever the reason for the inaction on this, the disconnect between the wealth generated by Sri Lanka’s tea industry and its frontline workers will not improve unless the political narrative of democratic progression is followed by tangible measures that help introduce an economic democracy for the Hill Country tea pickers. 

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  1. #1 Teasenz 25 Mar 14

    Hi Marco, we love your article and I think this articles is a great effort to make tea lovers aware of those conditions. We have included your article in our tea in news blog post: [a href=’http://helloteacup.com/2014/03/25/tea-in-news-week-13/’]tea news

  2. #2 Sunil Subramanian 26 Mar 14

    True, it's a sad state of affairs for Sri Lankan estate workers.

    It will be interesting to see what plays out in the future. Sri Lanka's tea industry is no longer ruled by these large plantations but by smallholder tea growers, families if you will, growing tea.

    I wonder how this will effect the livelihood of Sri Lanka's tea pluckers.

  3. #3 Hemal de Silva 26 Mar 14

    If Marco really does exist, I ([email protected])have no hesitation to state that he / she has never either visited or even seen from far, far away, by telescope, the living and working conditions of the workers on a Tea plantation. Let me suggest that he / she visits at least one good plantation and truthfully record what takes place with regard to the work involved, payments for work done, housing and all other benefits provided to the workers.

  4. #4 Thomas Golla 26 Mar 14

    Hemal de Silva - are you trolling? I would suggest that you have a look at the Real Price of Tea Campaign website - http://www.srilankacampaign.org/thepriceoftea.htm - to understand the scale of the problem described in this article.

  5. #5 Hemal de Silva 27 Mar 14

    Thomas, if you are inquiring whether I am spinning, circulating or wagging, I am not. I am fishing! I have identified myself and given an e-mail address as well!! I reiterate that the account given by Marco is far from the present position on Tea plantations in general. Please bear in mind that app. 75% of the annual production comes from small holder growers who are satisfied with the industry as their earnings are quite good. Several hundred large Tea plantations are managed by RPCs and State Agencies. There are also smaller privately owned estates. The report by Marco does not identify the estate, region or where the situation exists. This is what is basically inaccurate with what he has written. The description given is therefore extremely misleading. Therefore, I suggest that Marco and you visit the Tea plantations and see for yourselves the progress achieved since the plantations were given on lease to the RPCs.

    I have looked at the ‘Real Price of Tea Campaign’ and do not agree with all the information given. Until you see the situation for yourself, I strongly advise you to visit www.phdt.org. You will note that this organization has representatives of Plantation Unions as well. Anyone may contact the Unions and seek information. You must also note that for about two years there have been no stoppages of work on estates for increased wages or other matters, though many other workers in other industries as well as Govt. organisations have been agitating, picketing or gone on strike for various reasons. No doubt you are aware that those attached to the Foreign Service / Ministry of Israel have gone on strike for improved conditions!

    I agree that there are shortcomings on the plantations. The Tea Plantation Industry is unviable due to many valid reasons. Despite unviability the plantation workers have got once in two year wage increases during the past many years. The next increase is due in April, 2015. I have written a report on the present unviable situation giving my recommendations on how to overcome it. It is titled ‘SL Tea Plantations Industry – To diversify or not?’ this report was published in the International Journal of Tea Science, India in their February issue in 2014. I suggest that you read it. The research for this report was carried out by me during the past six and a half years and entirely on my own resources.

    You see, one important fact baffles me no end. There are so many experts who report on the poor working conditions of plantation workers, put forward many suggestions on how they should be improved but, none of these organisations appear to take an interest in doing it themselves! What I suggest is why don’t all these organisations who are so very concerned about these workers, form one main organization and submit a detailed report to the SL Government on what they feel should be done for their benefit and offer to take on lease a group of plantations and give all the rights the employees deserve? These RPCs were offered on lease publicly and this could have been done many years ago.

    As I said at the start, “I am fishing”. I am “Fishing” for information from all and sundry as I work by myself as an individual without any attachment to any organization in SL or elsewhere. I worked on plantations and have experience on how they work and under what conditions. On Tea plantations there are Tamil as well as Sinhalese workers. The latter may reside on the estate or live in adjoining villages. Please do not think that I am financed by anyone or any organization to “Talk”. If you read my report referred to earlier, I believe you will get a correct impression of my unbiased views. You must also not forget that the British brought the poor S. Indian people who were living in poverty to work on the plantations and were treated like slaves. Bracegirdle fought for their rights. These people are no longer treated like slaves.

    I have already given my e-mail address. Anyone is welcome to contact me, if necessary.

  6. #6 Thomas Golla 27 Mar 14

    Hermal - It's odd how you can dismiss the Real Price of Tea Campaign that is backed by 8 NGOS just because you do 'not agree', and then point to a website that is backed by the tea industry and multinationals. Admittedly I've not been to tea estates, myself, but why does that campaign exist if everything is perfect? A quick google search seems to have a number of stories about the poor conditions faced reported by the BBC and The Hindu among others.

    Nobody wants to see anyone live in poverty and without rights, even if only a small a minority face these conditions, it's still a small minority too many. But, I think you're missing the point here, working conditions are not only slight increases in wages. Material improvements, need to be accompanied by rights.

    I think we are agreed that Colonialism has a lot to answer for, in forcibly changing the demographics of these areas. But from my cursory research it doesn't seem like your point of view is constructive, because if some positive change is happening that's fantastic, but pressure must be sustained to lift these Tamils out of the 'extreme poverty' seen by the UNDP and mentioned in the article.

    Anyway, I'm now interested in this topic and that's no bad thing, is it? I couldn't access your research, so please email it over if you have a chance here - gollatom2000[at]gmail.com - as I think we may have exhausted these message boards

  7. #7 Tim Pare 30 Mar 14

    Finally, an article telling the truth about the tea pickers of Sri Lanka. Based on establishing and running an educational development charity in Maskeliya, Central Province called Tea Leaf Trust and living their for 4 years, (www.tealeaftrust.com) I would add a few things:

    In the 30 tea estate communities that we work with, focus groups suggest around 85% of the males are alcoholics. University of Colombo Gender Studies department research suggests 83% of the females suffer from domestic abuse (20% sexual).

    The educational system has been under-resourced in tea plantation areas for decades with free education coming to the children of these communities 6 years after it was given to the 'whole of Sri Lanka'. As recently as 2006 the government advertised for 3000 new teachers under 28 years old to deal with the dual issues of not enough teachers and high youth unemployment. Out of the applicants only 1,500 had suitable qualifications but the government employed an additional 1,500 unqualified teachers and hid them in tea estate schools. Out of the 28 English teachers I worked with directly only 2 of them could speak any English.

    As a rule, teachers in these areas only teach 75% of the curriculum and then run private classes for which they charge fees for the last 25% - tea plantation kids, of whom our evidence shows 78 - 80% live off less than $1 a day therefore miss out on these classes and any chance of continuing into further education.

    In other words, there is evidence of deliberate collaboration between state and private tea companies to ensure a continuing uneducated workforce for the plantations.

    Add to this that supposed benefits of Fair Trade tea run through a corporate model in Sri Lanka and do not reach the workers (Msc Dissertation extensive field research) and you have a very tough situation.

    Finally, the attitude of the rest of the country to the Indian Tamils (even from the Sri Lankan Tamils) is that they are 3rd class citizens still to this day.

    Thank you for shining a light on these forgotten communities.

  8. #8 Kumarathasan Rasingam 09 May 14

    these poor plantation workers were brought from South India to work in the Coffee planntations more than 200 years ago. After the coffee plants destroyed by severe attack of disease Tea plantation flurished with more and more workers form south India migrated to the Hill countries of Sri Lanka [UVA Province.
    When Sri Lanka got independence in 1948 these people became Sri Lankan citizens and enjoyed democracy. But the Sinhalese government passed a resolution in the Sri Lankan [Ceylon] to took away their franchise within an year.
    These poor workers are treated like slaves by the Plantation companies and after loosing thir political rights there is no one to speak in behalf of their sufferings.
    The Trade Unions exploited them and were only worried about their membership in the Union for their monthly contributions. As most of the workers and their childred are not educated they are forced to trust the Union. In the Plantation there is no proper education to children. The Government is not taking care of them because they are TAMILS.

  9. #12 Arlene 21 May 15

    Kumarathasan Rasingam
    Sunil Subramanian
    Thomas Golla
    Tim Pare & the team behind the scenes,

    Dear All

    I commend all of you for your love. (whom I do not know at all!).

    God Himself is a God of compassion and comfort. The task of providing consolation to the afflicted or suffering is a God given mandate to all mankind.

    Although I am not a Tamil my heart aches for the marginalized and suffering people of Sri Lanka and majority of such communities are of course found in the hill country and Jaffna. Tamil and Sinhala.

    I have voluntarily lived in the hills for one whole year and suffered with the communities doing my bit to help, teach, comfort and encourage these suffering community of people.

    ’Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined and every household divided against itself will not stand’(Mt.12:25).The elusive biblical pattern of Love and unity is found wanting in religion and the religious which is the chief cause of division and unconcern for the poor and suffering.

    Therefore, here is my word of encouragement to all of you supporting the work of any team or organization in this commitment to care, comfort and nurture the poor poverty stricken, beautiful people in the rural parts of Sri Lanka, especially the hill country and Jaffna.

    Many people are self centred instead of being 'others' centred and quick to point a finger. The Stumbling blocks to progress or growth is always hypocrisy. Form of godliness, denying the power thereof? It is a spiritual problem.Being religious does not transform the inner man. Only a relationship with God, does.

    Looking through the lens of Jesus Christ the good shepherd, I see these innocent beautiful people as sheep without a shepherd, lost, alone, many times forgotten and neglected and who will care for them if not for the caring people like TeaLeaves and the other organizations who do carry out their role in this mission?

    May God in His mercy and compassion open may more doors of opportunity to serve and support these innocent people who play a major role in the economy of Sri Lanka.
    One question in closing; Will the Sinhala people in Sri Lanka go work in the hills and suffer it out there and support their native land in this main source of foreign exchange which accounts for 2% of GDP contributing to aprox. $700 million annually to Sri Lanka's economy??

    So, in a sense division is imperative-could be from God; for TRUTH is always divisive.
    Blessings to TeaLeaves and all you people who even by word or deed support this outreach. My heart aches.

    With blessings and prayer
    A.Clarion

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