An invigorating cup of Ceylon tea is the mark of reliable quality, refined to perfection. We are proud to recognize Ceylon tea as one of the best brands in the world. Behind this beauty we are forced to see issues that are far from being beautiful. What about the well-being and rights of thousands of resilient plantation workers toiling in the fog-laden hills? These women (and these men) also have needs, emotions and aspirations like all humans. They are also Sri Lankan.
In the novel The Last English Plantation, the writer Janice Shinebourne, states the reality: it is thanks to the “coolies” that some became rich and had a privileged lifestyle. This is also the case of Ceylon. The first group of “coolies” was brought to Ceylon in 1817 to build the road from Colombo to Kandy. Later, several hundred came to work in the coffee plantations (1830-1880) and when coffee failed, they moved to work in the tea plantations. These workers were isolated in their “online homes,” wrapped up in their day-to-day work, a gray existence. Little had changed in 150 years in the lush mountains.
Attempts by interior Tamils to register as citizens have been deliberately thwarted by bureaucrats. After British rule and gaining independence through a united struggle in 1948, Sri Lanka sadly referred to tea plantation workers as “temporary immigrants”, denying them citizenship despite years of employment in the old Ceylon. Their hard work has built the economy of this country. It was not until the 1980s that Sri Lanka granted citizenship rights to “descendants of Indian Tamil workers”. That says a lot about our democracy then!
Everyone knows that these hardy women are the backbone of the national tea industry, which generates millions in revenue in addition to enhancing tourism. Each group of tourists visits a tea estate. The estate’s workforce has worked with tremendous efficiency for decades. Karl Marx once said: “The accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time an accumulation of misery, toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.” Perhaps his words echo with a deafening silence in these hills. Female tea plantation workers are never appreciated for the very important work they do. It is physically demanding work to carry a heavy basket and work on slippery mountain sides, under the threat of leeches and snakes. There are many cases where these poor women were badly bitten by hornets and had to wait in pain for a vehicle to be taken to hospital.
Their way of life is mundane and manifests affliction. They start their day by waking up at 4am. They don’t have hot water taps or houses with carpets. They have to make their frugal breakfast which is very often rotti. In addition, they must take care of their school children, like any responsible mother. These children have to walk long distances to get to school, rain or shine. They have never seen fast food for a snack. In the past, we have seen all kinds of claims from plantation leaders that other methods of collecting and transporting the tender green tea leaves or ‘kolundu’ would be introduced. It remains an illusion. The same 150-year-old method lives on, and remains a form of cruel bondage.
The book Two Leaves and a Bud (author Raj Anand -1937) describes life on the plantations in India, a kind of prison where the workers must give up on themselves to endure humiliation. We realize that poverty was not the only factor that compelled Indians to go abroad. Many were brought on the journey to work on tea plantations, mainly in Ceylon. Why have these voiceless women been treated like this for more than a century? For the record, a few tea companies have started good projects to improve the welfare of these workers, which is commendable. It’s not enough. As a nation, what have we done to empower these plantation workers?
Is the upper echelon of the tea industry worried that if these women are given proper empowerment, especially in education, they will lose this cheap and obedient labour? Let’s stop for a moment. The huge staff employed in the garment industry work hard. They wear uniforms, enjoy healthy meals, team recreation, annual bonuses, and work amidst modern technology. On the other hand, the women of the estate were left behind. During the 1970s, the tea estates were taken over by the state, resulting in the forced eviction of ‘estate workers’ leading to destitution on the roads of Nawalapitiya, Gampola and Hatton. Hundreds are said to have died. There was no one to talk about human rights at that time. There was no aragalaya for their rights and welfare.
The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore said: “We acquire freedom when we have paid a high price”. For more than 150 years, women tea pickers have paid their share through their dedicated work. They are certainly not free in many spheres of life. To begin with, they never had the chance to have a good education, especially to learn English. The ability to learn the English language is still elusive in the mountain region, although many new schools have been built, which is somewhat commendable. Education does not arise from a cement building but from a dedicated force of teachers.
After studying until about grade 8 or 9, many young girls drop out of school. This automatically prevents them from learning other business skills. A few hundred fortunately made it to college. For those on the plantations, like their mothers, the “tea basket” is put on their shoulders and the tradition lives on. They often marry within their community. Besides their hard work in the hills, these voiceless women have to endure verbal and physical abuse from their husbands, who are also frustrated and remain in bondage to the system. In vintage times, these Tamil women were assaulted and raped by British superintendents. Where were human rights and justice? These plantation workers have to live in uncomfortable houses in the cold mountains. I spoke to many of these women. These women hardly come to Colombo City except for urgent medical need at Colombo General Hospital. They hardly made any pleasure trips. What a sad state of discrimination and poverty. Those who genuinely defend women’s rights must take note of these problems.
Thousands of plantation women work hard and retire with no savings. They only collect varicose veins on their legs after years of standing and spine-related pain from carrying the heavy Ceylon tea basket. They carry the burden of broken dreams. It is dismissive that these plantation workers still have to campaign for a raise. Their rights and welfare as workers are as important as Sri Lankan tea exports. Ceylon tea must not only reflect good taste but also goodness for its plantation workers at all levels. I conclude with a quote from Martin Luther King “Any work that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”