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Today in the Mission Yearbook

PC(USA) delegation gets inside look at life on Sri Lankan tea plantations

Lack of proper nutrition, housing and education plague workers

April 10, 2018

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)

A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) delegation recently visited Sri Lanka, where they learned about the lives of tea plantation workers and the implications for PC(USA) mission work in Sri Lanka.

 “In 2016 alone, the U.S. imports of tea and spices from Sri Lanka amounted to $65 million,” said Valery Nodem, the Presbyterian Mission Agency associate for international hunger, who accompanied the delegation. “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.”

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 allowed to take only 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, their parents are not required to register them with the government, but they are required to register with the plantation. The situation hasn’t changed in more than 150 years.

An average worker receives the equivalent of about $39 a month. The superintendent of the tea estate is usually paid the equivalent of about $657 a month.

Although women do most of the picking, the cultural norm is such that most wages are picked up by the husbands. Alcoholism is rampant on the plantations, and often the men use the money 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.

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

Although Sri Lanka has a high urban literacy rate — more than 92 percent — the literacy rate on the plantations is only 66 percent. 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 often lacks proper ventilation and adequate sanitation. As many as seven to 10 family members live in one room.

A PC(USA) partner, the National Christian Churches in Sri Lanka (NCCL), is working with the Sri Lanka Malayaha Tamilar Rights Coalition, a group advocating for the rights of the minority Malayaha Tamilar community. Last year the groups worked to prepare a review assessing the human rights situation of the community. NCCL’s work centers on 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.”  

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

The Rev. S. Devadasan, a Methodist pastor and member of NCCL, is also a plantation-born Tamil. Since becoming ordained, he has worked to help the people of the tea plantations live a life of dignity and hope. He believes the church has a responsibility 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.”             

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), accompanied the delegation in response to the General Assembly’s directive to ensure the companies held by the investing agencies of the PC(USA) appropriately monitor 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.”

Kathy Melvin, Director, Mission Communications, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Sri Lankan tea plantations

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Debra Jones, PMA
Edgar Jones, PMA

Let us pray:

O God, guide us to be your presence to those in need, and help us to be agents of your enduring mercy and justice. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Daily Readings

Morning Psalms 98; 146
First Reading Exodus 15:1-21
Second Reading 1 Peter 1:13-25
Gospel Reading John 14:18-31
Evening Psalms 66; 116