Part IX of a series – If you haven’t already, please read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII and Part VIII before continuing. This series is part of my work for the Sustainable (R)evolution book project.
Preamble: Described as ‘the champagne of tea’, Sri Lankan tea is consumed the world over. Second only to Kenya in exports, Sri Lanka’s tea industry accounts for a full 15% of the nation’s GDP, generating about $700 million per year. Yet very little of this money is seen by the people actually producing it…. Tea plantation workers are trapped in low paid manual labour positions and live in miserable housing conditions, while people around the globe slurp on the fruit of their misery. Sarvodaya has its work cut out to try to assist, but they’re giving it a good try.
Sri Lankan tea plantation worker
All photographs © copyright Craig Mackintosh
Winding up into the south-central highlands of Sri Lanka was refreshing – taking us from temperatures pushing 40’C to a pleasant 24-ish. In contrast to the more arid south and north of the country, this hilly terrain, which hosts dozens of Sri Lanka’s world famous tea plantations, attracts significantly more precipitation and cooler temperatures.
Tea has been grown in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon, as named by the British colonialists) for more than 130 years. In the 1860s, after a rust fungus decimated the coffee plantations that previously majored there, tea quickly took over as the crop of choice. Although produced in several lowland regions in the south of the country as well, it’s the leaves from the tea estates of these higher altitudes that are particularly sought after for their exceptional quality in taste and colour.
Tea plantations in the central highlands of Sri Lanka
While the scenery was exceptional and the climate pleasant, anyone with half a heart who might head off the beaten tourist path in this district would find much injustice to dampen the mood….
We pass through a small town as we climb up into the mountains
A village rests on a hill above a giant waterfall
in the high watershed of Sri Lanka’s central highlands
Life sucks for the average tea plantation worker
Unlike other Sarvodaya endeavours – where entire villages reassess what’s really important in life and then work together to implement positive change on land under their control – Sarvodaya faces a much greater challenge here, with the people they’re trying to assist being low paid peasant tenants on state owned, industry controlled estates.
Across Sri Lanka women are often discriminated against, but on the tea plantations this tendency is even more pronounced. Tea plucking is assigned to women and girls, only, with the girls starting as young as twelve years old. They, along with their males, are accommodated in barracks of one or two room ‘line houses’ (which I was not allowed to view or photograph) with extremely basic amenities – normally without running water, electricity, sanitation facilities and often even without windows. Six to eleven family members may live together in a single room. Privacy and sexual harassment is thus also a significant problem, resulting in a higher than normal suicide rates amongst the women.
Pluckers are paid by the quantity they harvest, earning about 200 rupees per day (US$1.75) from working 7:30am to 5-5:30pm. In the peak season they will work these hours seven days per week for up to three months, slowing to 3-4 days per week in the off-season. In the dim light or darkness before and after work the women must also cater to the needs of their families – looking for firewood with which to cook their meals, etc. This burden is offset a little by having even younger girls attend to domestic duties during the daylight hours.
Men fare slightly better – they’ll earn about the same amount for working less hours, weeding, logging and planting from 7:30am to 1:30pm, and can earn a little more again from other tasks after that. Men are responsible for collecting not only their own wage, but also that of their wives and daughters….
At the end of their working life workers are paid a small, lump sum pension payment – after which they’re at the mercy of their extended family.
Article continues after photos.
Women queuing at 5pm to register their day’s work at the estate office…
…before being trucked to a different part of the estate
– to work a little more before the day closes.
Mostly illiterate and unskilled, workers have little hope of escaping to a more equitable or meaningful life. All the estates pay the same rate, so trying to transfer to one of the other (roughly 500) plantations in the country is pointless. The industry retains its labour force, not through incentives or reward, but by paying them so inadequately that they just cannot leave.
As most have little to no land or time available to cultivate much in the way of their own food, they’re fully dependent on this wholly unjust money system.
The particular estate I visited had the apparent dual advantage of being ‘fair trade’ in addition to Sarvodaya’s involvement. When questioning the women on the benefits brought by the estate’s fair trade status, however, my disgust with many fair trade claims was further cemented. After much contemplation, the women said the fair trade organisation had provided school bags for their children, and a couple of very small buildings for religious services. Wahoo! Convinced they must have done more, I pressed different individuals during the course of my visit, asking in different ways in the hope of prying more information out. I signally failed to discover anything more that ‘fair trade’ had done to improve their lot. The one thing they did confirm was that they were not paid more than workers on other estates.
That should give you that nice warm, fuzzy feeling the next time you pay a premium to pick up fair trade Sri Lankan tea at your local market, hey?
When escorted into the estate’s leaf processing factory I was told I must put my camera away. When querying the reason, I was informed that the last person to take pictures there, a year prior I believe, returned to her homeland, Germany, and the pictures went into a German newspaper report that didn’t make the ‘fair trade’ organisation happy at all…. The result of the article was not an improvement of worker conditions, but a ban on further photographs in the building.
Sarvodaya, the people’s movement, more effective
When asked about Sarvodaya’s involvement, however, they were far more enthusiastic. One middle aged and heavily calloused women clearly stated "Sarvodaya has much more value to us than fair trade".
One of the first tangible benefits Sarvodaya has brought was to provide (with international donors financing it and the estate workers and Sarvodaya volunteers providing the labour), clean drinking water – through a gravity fed system that filters the water and pipes it directly to tanks on top of the line houses. As you might imagine, carrying water great distances in your ‘free’ time, when working such long shifts, would be a major chore. This single low-tech design implementation is, on its own, of immense value to the tenant families.
In addition Sarvodaya has, just like in other Sarvodaya villages, encouraged and helped the women to form committees to address specific needs, and has encouraged the estate managers to open estate management up to input from the same. Of the estates Sarvodaya are involved in, up to fifty percent of the labourers are now members of committees which directly influence estate management. Wage increases don’t enter into the discussion at this point, but other aspects that directly effect their quality of life do – including developing greater respect for women by all.
Sarvodaya is working to improve the estates’ health situations – currently farm accidents and other medical issues can be traumatic and deadly due to delays and lack of medical support and resources – and is also providing micro financing for some to begin small cottage industries. On this particular estate, some of the families that had lived there for generations had tiny portions of garden space, which Sarvodaya was assisting them with to develop a little food security as well.
It seems clear that a grass roots, participatory democracy people’s movement will always be more effective than top down, industry- and self-interest controlled, consumer-pandering financial mechanisms. The self-interest foundation of capitalism ensures funds trickle, or flood, to the people with power, not the people who need it or have earned it.
A peaceful revolution?
When I first arrived at the estate I was welcomed like a king. Warm smiles and enthusiastic hand shaking ensued before I was prominently seated in a small room with more than 15 other women and just a few men – one a rather apprehensive looking fair trade representative. A wooden bowl was produced, a finger dipped into it, and a Tilaka painted onto my forehead. Then a floral necklace, reminiscent of the Hawaiian Lei, but made of plastic, was placed over my head and around my neck. To complete the welcome they all sang a song in unison. I worked hard to project appreciation and not reveal my inner embarrassment for such a show of attention.
Talking with them all, I felt so out of touch with the realities of their life, and yet as a westerner accustomed to some degree of (at least perceived) independence, I felt a deep frustration for the way these people are forced to live. Short of suicide, they truly have little chance to escape their onerous existence.
After speaking a while and hearing their situation and their views, with my frustration deepening, I couldn’t help but broach the topic of ‘systemic management change’ and/or land redistribution. Could they envision a more equitable profit-share scenario, where workers co-owned the estate and benefitted from its development?
"No, we can’t see our instigating a revolution", one said, as they all broke into a smile.
"What then, do you see for the future?"
"We put our hopes in our children" another shared, with others nodding in agreement.
They told me that Sarvodaya is helping support the education of their children, giving hope that these will go on to achieve more, become politically and legally active, and potentially overturn the system they were born into. Sarvodaya’s leadership training has seen not a few underprivileged young people go on to become teachers, lawyers and even judges. This, combined with the Sarvodaya philosophy of ‘progress/welfare for all’, has the potential, they believe, to stimulate positive pressure on their situation.
In Part II of this series I shared the meaning of the words ‘Sarvodaya Shramadana’, the name of the people’s movement I’ve been documenting. It is, essentially, "the awakening and uplift/progress/welfare of all". In the context of the modern day feudalism and effective slavery occurring at these tea estates, the words might well also be transliterated into, simply, ‘a peaceful revolution’?