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Activists issue warning to tea industry

Improving lives of tea workers is 'an imperative'

Women tea workers reaping daily harvest Women tea workers reaping daily harvest
  • ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • February 6, 2012
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Activists and academics say tea workers are living in abject misery which if not addressed will have a severe impact on the industry and ultimately on the country’s economy.

“Many workers live with their entire family in small, one-room structures that lack running water and sanitation facilities,” said Professor Kalinga Tudor Silva, a senior sociology professor at Peradeniya University.

“Malnutrition, a lack of education, low wages, lack of job security, no health care and addiction to illicit liquor are just some of the other hardships they have to endure,” he told a Sri Lanka Foundation Institute meeting in Colombo recently.

“It is little wonder their children don’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps,” he said.

If nothing is done the future will look bleak for the for the tea industry he warned, as no one will want to work on plantations.

The industry still depends on a high level of manual labor. There are estimated to be around 500,000 plantation workers in Sri Lanka who usually live on the estate where they work.

These workers are almost all Tamils descended from those brought to Sri Lanka from India by the British in the 19th century to provide cheap labor on the estates. Around 52 percent of the workers are women.

To highlight the plight of these workers a book called Red Color of Tea was launched at the event which was attended by more than 100 civil activists.

Father Michael Rajendram, Director of Community Development Service for Plantations in Galle diocese said labor shortages are already starting to bite.

“They bring in billions of dollars for the country, yet they sleep on the floor. The result is that there are more vacancies at tea factories but nobody is applying for them because of the low wages and bad conditions,” he said.

One plantation worker from Kandy, Ranjani Selvan, told the meeting that living conditions are appalling and employers refuse to pay workers if daily targets are not met.

“We are the lowest paid sector in the country’s workforce, receiving a basic daily wage of 390 rupees (US$ 3.50) per day. We only get that if we fulfill the target of picking 18 to 25 kilograms of leaves per day,” she said.

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