Lack of proper nutrition, housing and education plague Sri Lanka’s tea plantation community

The island’s farm workers are left with only the bitter dust

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Extended families often live in one-room tea plantation housing. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The plantation people of Sri Lanka harvest some of the world’s finest tea, yet they don’t get to enjoy it themselves. Instead, they are only allowed to take the bitter dust of the leaves. It’s a metaphor for their lives.

Tea is Sri Lanka’s largest cash crop and the gold standard for quality. The country supplies more than 50 percent of the world’s market, but the families working on the tea estates, some for many generations, are among the poorest in the island nation. About 40 percent of the babies born to these families are underweight. When they are born, they are not required to register with the government, but they are required to register with the plantation. The situation hasn’t changed in more than 150 years.

A typical wage for a 10-hour day of plantation work is 380 Rupees, about $2.49. If they worked more than 22 days, they receive 510 Rupees per day. An average worker receives about 6,000 Rupees a month or around $39. The superintendent of the tea estate is usually paid about 100,000 Rupees a month or about $657.

Although women do most of the picking, the cultural norm is such that 95 percent of wages are picked up by the husbands. Alcoholism is rampant on the plantations and often the money is used by the men to fuel their addictions. When women take their bags of picked tea to be weighed, they are not allowed to see the scale. They are forced to take the word of the men in charge.

A young woman sits in a Tuk-Tuk on the plantation property. Despite poor access to quality education, she has recently done very well on her exams. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

Although Sri Lanka has a very high urban literacy rate of more than 92 percent, the literacy rate on the plantation properties is only 66 percent. The schools are not well maintained and lack qualified teachers. In fact, about 20 percent of the teachers are volunteers. The poor educational standards give these children little hope to qualify for universities and technical colleges.

Within the plantation system, free housing is offered to workers but the housing itself and the sanitation is poor. There can be a line of up to 24 rooms in one long barrack. Without windows, the 10-by-12-foot rooms are dark and lack proper ventilation. As many as seven to 10 family members live in one room.

In the early 1800s there were about 3 million Sinhalese natives on the island, who are mostly Buddhist. When Great Britain colonialized then-Ceylon, the government brought in about 1 million Tamil, mostly Hindu, from India to work on the coffee, tea and rubber plantations as laborers.

PC(USA) partner the National Christian Churches in Sri Lanka (NCCL) is working with the Sri Lanka Malaha Tamilar Rights Coalition (SLMTRC), a group advocating for the rights of the Malayaha Tamilar community. Last year the groups worked to prepare a Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka, assessing the human rights situation of the minority community. NCCL’s work centers around confronting the human rights issues and fair labor practices in two of the nation’s primary economic strongholds, tea plantations and the garment industry.

“Sri Lanka’s Malayaha community has a tragic history of discrimination, exploitation and violence,” said Lalinda Wickremeratne, an NCCL staff member who works with the tea plantation families. “They were brought from India to work in Sri Lanka’s plantations in conditions of slavery during colonial times and that exploitation continues. The post-colonial state played a primary role in perpetuating and entrenching discrimination in this community. Enactment of the citizenship act kept the Tamils stateless and disenfranchised.”

The Citizenship Act of 1948 stated that to qualify for citizenship, a person had to prove their father was born in Ceylon or they were at least third generation immigrants. Without specifically saying it, this prevented all Tamils from having the opportunity to become citizens or own property. Finally, in 2003 the Sri Lankan Parliament passed the “Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin” act granting citizenship to Tamils who had lived in Sri Lanka since October 1964, including their descendants.

The Rev. S. Devadasan is a pastor and a member of NCCL. He is also a Tamil and plantation-born. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

The Rev. S. Devadasan is a Methodist pastor and a member of NCCL. He is also a Tamil and plantation-born. Since becoming ordained, he has been working to help the people of the tea plantations live a life of dignity and hope. His home and church are just minutes from several tea plantations. Last year was the 150th anniversary of tea in Sri Lanka and he and a group of fellow pastors used the opportunity to stage a protest on the social injustice suffered by the people of the tea plantations, writing poems and special music for the event. He believes it is the responsibility of the church to serve this marginalized community.

“It is the right time for the churches in Sri Lanka to give leadership, vision and direction to the people of the estate communities who are struggling,” he said. “The incarnation affirms the presence of Jesus Christ with the suffering. The church represents Christ in the world, so we cannot neglect anyone or any community because we are all God’s children,” said Devadasan.

Valery Nodem, the Presbyterian Mission Agency associate for international hunger, was with the delegation that visited Sri Lanka. “In 2016 alone, the U.S. imports of tea and spices from Sri Lanka amounted to $65 million,” he said. “It’s important that we learn more about people who produce these goods for the world, and what are their general work and living conditions. As a ministry of Compassion, Peace and Justice, the Presbyterian Hunger Program works with the National Council of Churches in Sri Lanka to connect with the realities of tea plantation workers, and to accompany their efforts to live a better and dignified life.”

Rob Fohr, director of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement at the PC(USA) and lead staff person to the committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), joined the group in response to the General Assembly’s directive to ensure the companies held by the investing agencies of the PC(USA) appropriately monitor and vet their suppliers.

“MRTI engages with publicly traded corporations held in the portfolios of the Board of Pensions and the Foundation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” he said. “MRTI for many years has done advocacy with companies in a variety of industries on supply chain responsibility; that is, ensuring that companies maintain high labor standards for the suppliers throughout their supply chain.”

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