Sri Lanka’s estate workers are used to being forgotten.
Brought down from India in the early 1800s by British colonizers, those who survived the journey did so on a diet of false promises and little else. Denied both Indian and Sri Lankan citizenship as a result of their migrant status, they worked on upcountry plantations for years before half of them were forcibly shipped back to India in 1946, following an agreement between both governments.
Of those who remained, only some received citizenship. Approximately 3600 estate workers only received Sri Lankan citizenship as recently as 2008, after 200 years spent cultivating the country’s most valuable export: tea.
Tea pluckers have become symbolic of this country – they are on promotional images for Sri Lankan tourism, on tea company brochures and websites, plastered on the immigration desks at the airport, romanticized in articles like this one. Baskets tied to their heads, straining their necks, sweat on their foreheads, smiling or squinting or both.
And while these women form a clear majority within the estate worker community, they remain largely underrepresented in its leadership, within trade unions, and in negotiations with the government and private corporations.
Even media coverage of the recent wage strikes, which went on for 2 months and cost the plantation industry roughly Rs.240 million ($1.4 million) per day, was decidedly male-dominated.
The strikes – allegedly organized by a public figure to gain political favor while falsely appeasing workers – were aimed at increasing the estate workers’ daily wage from Rs.500 ($2.8) to Rs.1000 ($5.7) daily.
In January 2019, a deal was reached between unions and plantation companies that increased daily wages to Rs.700 ($4), a decision that workers called a ‘sellout’. Prior to January, daily wages had remained at Rs.500 ($2.8) since 2016.
Lakshmi* tells me all this in her office in Hatton, pulling numbers and dates from memory and pausing every few minutes to refer back to an A4 sheet of paper on which she has listed everything she would like me to know about the history of the estates. The office is airy and open, and Lakshmi’s desk stands in the center of the room. There is little available space on the walls – they are covered in photos from workshops and conferences, posters and banners from events Lakshmi has engineered and overseen. Hers is the only organization in the country dedicated to advocating for the rights and concerns of female plantation workers.
“We didn’t start out as a women’s rights organization,” she says. “When we started, in 1992, it was for worker’s rights. But we have always advocated for those who need it most, and right now, that’s women.” The organization was officially founded and registered in 1992 by Lakshmi’s husband. The original registration certificate is framed behind Lakshmi’s desk, along with a photo of her husband, who passed away three years ago.
It is through Lakshmi that I meet Meera*, a welfare officer, and Sasikala*, an estate worker, who work with the organization on a voluntary basis. These women work 18-hour days, inclusive of their work on the estate and housework, with no benefits besides a tea allowance of 500g a month.
“Water is our biggest problem,” Sasikala says, noting that Sri Lanka’s prevailing dry season has been brutal for those living on the estates. “The factories use what little clean water there is, so our families have to drink from streams polluted by medicines and fertilizers.”
Water and wages are issues that impact the entire plantation community.
They are united in their dedication to finding solutions, to fighting for justice. The same cannot be said of the sexual harassment on plantations and within NGOs, the widespread alcoholism-fuelled domestic abuse, the lack of leadership and representation for the women who are the backbone of the tea industry. These are issues that do not receive as much media attention or attempts at serious reform.
The fact that they are exclusive to women workers, who contribute the majority of labor to an industry that made Rs.20.1 billion ($115 million) just this past January is of seemingly no consequence.
NGOs and aid organizations in the area are part of the problem. Lakshmi tells me that one such organization imposes forced family-planning procedures on women workers, adding that those higher up are complicit in the practice.
Workplace sexual harassment is easy to cover-up. “No woman is willing to risk her job to report something that no one will believe,” Meera says. Sasikala suggests replacing men in senior positions with the younger generation of educated, ambitious women to reduce the likelihood of abuse.
Alcohol-fuelled domestic abuse is routine on the estates – at one point, a hospital admitted between 60 and 70 women roughed up by their drunken husbands in a single month. The police are unwilling and unequipped to deal with such cases, so they have begun reporting them to Lakshmi instead. She is not always in a position to intervene, but – as with everything else – she does all she can.
Volunteers at her organization have formed pressure groups – they are taught their legal rights and provided knowledge on the processes of reform and policy-making. These women then go into their communities and replicate this training process with other more women. Knowledge of how to create change spreads, as does a certain hunger in this pursuit.
“My job,” Lakshmi says, “is only to light a match and start a fire. Once that is done, I just step aside and watch it burn.”
*The names in this article have been changed at the request of those mentioned.