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.