Bitter Sweet Tea Drops
by Massimiliano Clausi/ LAIF
Secluded from the rest of the Tamil population and for a long time ignored by the national authorities, hundreds of thousands of workers that migrated from southern India more than a century ago are still exploited in the tea plantations on the central hills of Sri Lanka.
Even though tea is the main export produce of the country, adding up to 5% of the national GDP, it hasn't always been cultivated on the island. The English brought it in by mid 19th century, back when the land was still named Ceylon. Tea is an intensive crop whose leaves can be harvested all year around and the British soon realized that having cheap, resident labor would boost the plantations' production. Thus from Tamil Nadu, one of the poorest districts of India then still under Her British Majesty's rule, thousands of workers were imported, all belonging to the Tamil ethnic group. They were deliberately selected among the lower cast to prevent them from mixing and forming a common front with the other Tamils who had settled centuries before in the northern part of Sri Lanka. Their attempt was met with such a success that still today a saying goes that a Tamil from the north would rather marry Sinhalese than a Tamil from the tea estates. In 1948 came the final blow to these workers' dignity. Around 800.000 of them, employed by the tea industry, were recognized as Indian Tamils of recent immigration, and stripped of their citizenship by a freshly independent Sri Lankan government. Following an ethnic cleansing policy, thousands of these specialized workers were forcibly moved back to India, a persecution to be later known as The Great Uprooting. Even though later governments went back on that decision putting an end to such an injustice, it has left an irremediable scar in the victims memory.
The work organization inside the tea estates is traditionally gender based. Women are payed by the weight of tea leaves they pluck, around 2,50 Euros for an average harvest of 16 kg a day. Anyhow their pay will only be placed in their husbands' hands. The men instead only work part-time, carrying out odd jobs and taking care of the plantation's maintenance. In a typical working day, a tea plucker will wake up at dawn, cook for the whole family, get the children ready for school and walk several kilometers to the harvesting area. Her shift will end in the late afternoon, around 5 pm. She will then walk back all the way home and take care of the family who will be waiting for her to prepare dinner.
Most of the plantations workers are still housed in the so called line-rooms, military-like quarters built by the British in the colonial times. Each family is entitled to one room only, typically a few square meters wide. Hygienic facilities are also scarce, an average of two wells and toilets serve around 50 families. Even though each estate has a dispensary today, medical care is clearly not sufficient and doesn't go much further than pain killers and paracetamol. The closest hospital is often several hours walk away on unpaved winding roads, an exhausting journey for the sick. In spite of being masters at all the tea cultivation techniques, the plantations Tamils don't seem to have a share of the estimated 85 million Euros this high-valued resource has gathered in 2009.
Although Sri Lankan law now grants plantation workers full citizenship rights, low self-esteem, poor levels of education and language barriers often prevent them from fully understanding or exercising these rights. Schools are often under-staffed and estate children have few role models for alternative occupations, further perpetuating a cycle of dependency, isolation and vulnerability.