The heirs of two centuries of injustice: History of Tamil labourers in tea plantations in Sri Lanka

This is the story of the Tamil women who are dedicated to collecting tea in Sri Lanka. Although their situation has improved since their ancestors came to the country from India to work on the plantations, they still claim better wages to survive.

Tea plants spread out from the train tracks like a green blanket that covers the entire hill, while a group of women with baskets behind them move like little ants amid that uniform colour. It is Nanu Oya, a small town in the Nuwara Eliya district in the highlands of Sri Lanka.

The former Ceylon is the fourth tea producing country in the world, behind China, India and Kenya, with an annual production of around 300 million kilos of one of the most exquisite teas, with unique properties and a characteristic flavour due to the environmental conditions that determine the nature of the crop. Nuwara Eliya, which with an altitude of 1,869 meters above sea level is the most important tea-producing region of Sri Lanka.

Tea cultivation was introduced by the British in the 19th century after that of coffee failed due to a fungal disease that caused a major economic collapse, the abandonment of plantations and the return of many landowners to Europe.

It was then that Scottish James Taylor helped the island reinvent itself. Actually dedicated to coffee, Taylor pioneered the planting of tea plants in 1867, before the devastating plague, that he brought back from a trip to India and found that this new crop was better suited to the hot and humid climate of Sri Lanka. 

The success of the tea plantations was labour intensive, and Indian workers from Tamil regions began to be recruited. The British developed a contract labour system that tied workers to plantations in conditions, not unlike those of the allegedly abolished slavery. The workers came to the island with a huge debt for their recruitment, and it was not until 1922 that a law was enacted preventing migrant workers from being forced to pay for their own transportation from India to Ceylon. They lived crowded in the shacks, without sanitation, without water, without medical facilities or schools for their children. Working conditions were very harsh due to the number of hours they had to work, the quotas required and the treatment by supervisors.

When Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, they were legally designated as “temporary immigrants”, denying them citizenship. In the 1960s, an agreement between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments led to the forced repatriation to India for hundreds of thousands of Tamil workers, most of whom had spent their entire lives in Sri Lanka. In compensation, others were allowed to remain and become citizens, although this process was extremely slow.

In the 1980s, as a result of strikes and other labour actions, and the government’s desire to reduce the possibility of workers supporting Tamil secessionists in the North and East, the new legislation granted citizenship to Tamil plantation workers and equal pay for men and women.

It is eight o’clock in the morning in Nanu Oya and Cowsalliyadevi Palani has already been awake for a couple of hours, has left prepared food and is finishing dressing to go to work. Palani is 50 years old and has been working on the tea plantations since she was 16. She is one of the 500,000 women workers in the Sri Lankan tea industry today, descended, like most of the sector’s workforce, from Tamils ​​arriving from India in the 19th century.

After putting on several layers of clothing, tying a cloth around her waist like an apron, a scarf on her head, and placing the basket in which she will collect the tea leaves throughout the day on her back, she goes out to the door of her house where a neighbour who also works on the plantation is waiting for her. “Come on, quickly, we’ll be late,” she says to her neighbour as she closes the door.

Fewer and fewer women are working on the plantation, the younger ones do not want to because they earn very little and it is a very demanding job.

When they arrive at the foot of the plantation, a supervisor waits for them to give them directions to the area where they will have to work today and check their booklets, where at the end of the day they will write down the kilos of tea leaves collected. Once the process is completed, the women begin to climb the hill, many of them barefoot, to intermingle with the tea plants and begin to pluck the most tender leaves. “I have a son and a daughter and luckily neither of them works on the plantation,” says Palani. “Fewer and fewer women are working on the plantation, the younger ones do not want to because they earn very little and it is a very demanding job,” she explains smiling as her hands do not stop tearing tea leaves.

In order to collect the daily basic wage of Rs 700, Palani has to collect a minimum of 18 kilos of tea leaves. “Most men who used to work in tea now do other things,” he exclaims with a shrug. “Many of them have gardens with which they earn more than on the plantation.” At the end of the day, after hours in the sun, they descend the hill carrying the basket on their backs and a sack on their heads full of tea leaves, to where the supervisor waits again to weigh everything they have collected. “Today has been a good day, I have managed to collect more than 18 kilos”, she says smiling as she looks at her card, “I will gain a little more than 700 rupees”.

After almost 200 years since their arrival in Sri Lanka, tea plantation workers still today do not have the same rights and privileges as other citizens of the country. Despite a guaranteed wage system and the provision of housing, conditions on the plantations still make workers among the most marginalised and impoverished segments of the population. Their hard work benefits plantation owners, the country, and the trade balance, while they remain mired in poverty. Their complaints are heard only by signing collective agreements once every two years, although the approval of such collective agreements is systematically delayed, at which they only achieve insignificant increases in wages.

Faced with this situation, frustrated with their stagnant wages and the constant increase in the cost of living, protests have proliferated in different regions of the country to demand a fair wage, and tens of thousands of plantation workers throughout the island have been united in the fight for a wage of 1,000 rupees a day (about five euros) under the so-called 1000 Movement, one of the largest mobilisations of Sri Lankan workers in recent history, both in its show of strength and in its geographical extension.

The last collective agreement was to be renewed on October 15, 2018, but the companies refused to agree to the demand for the wage of one thousand rupees and until the end of January 2019 a new collective agreement was not signed, which increased the basic salary from 500 at 700 rupees, still 300 rupees below the amount the workers had emphatically demanded.

Despite the 40% increase in the basic salary, in the end, the real increase was only 20 rupees (10 euro cents). With the previous agreement the total salary was 730 rupees a day, resulting from 500 rupees of daily basic salary and 230 rupees of incentives, and with this last negotiation, although the basic salary was increased to 700 rupees and the fixed incentive to 50 rupees, attendance and productivity incentives were removed, bringing the total daily wage to 750 rupees.

While employers defend the 40% increase as a significant step, the matter is far from resolved. The companies argue that workers can earn even more than the required 1,000 rupees by increasing the payment per additional kilo (40 rupees per kilo compared to 25 rupees per kilo previously paid), aimed at improving productivity. And although the protests have stopped on the plantations and only small groups of sympathisers remain in Colombo who continue to carry out sporadic protests demanding the minimum wage of Rs 1,000, the fight for that basic wage that started in 2016 will continue, because they argue that a living wage cannot be below five euros a day.

The first thing Palani does when she gets home after work, even before she changes her clothes, is run to look for her nine-month-old granddaughter. His face lights up when he holds her in his arms as if that’s all he needs to recover from a hard day at work. “It is the little toy in the house, the most valuable thing I have,” he says happily. He leaves her for a second to change clothes, clean up and eat some curried rice, and quickly goes back to playing with her. “I do not like what I do, it is very hard work,” she says with a half-smile, “but I am very happy because after seven generations I will be the last of my family who will have to work on the tea plantation.”


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