Human Rights

Fighting Poverty, Sri Lanka’s Tea Estate Workers Demand Pay Increase


Article Highlights

Tea estate workers, standing in heavy rain, gather to demand a wage increase. K. Sathyawathy, middle in black rain jacket, is a 38-year-old widow who was born at Kenilworth Estate and has worked there since she was 15 years old. Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

People who pluck tea leaves on this island nation’s tea plantations say they’ve been underpaid for generations. They say a recent wage hike isn’t enough to pull them out of poverty.

GINIGATHHENA, SRI LANKA — A small group of people gathers at the junction of two narrow roads, deep inside Kenilworth Estate, a tea plantation in this island’s mountainous interior.

Nadesan Thyagarajan, 61, calls out to people still inside their homes in an attempt to grow the crowd.

“Everyone draw yourselves closer, please listen to what I say!” he calls. “Think for yourselves, stop being cooped up inside your houses! Come out and get engaged in our conversations.”

INSIDE THE STORY: Ignored by sources and pressed by editors, a Global Press reporter discovers a way to get the information she needs. In the process, she uncovers the real story, ignored by other news organizations, about tea plantation workers and their fight for a higher wage. Read the blog.

Thyagarajan, a worker at Kenilworth Estate, is a leader of a campaign for a higher daily wage for tea estate employees.

Once about two dozen people gather, Thyagarajan shares plans for a protest march — one of many — in the nearby town of Ginigathhena.

“We aren’t getting paid what we deserve,” Thyagarajan says. “We should fight for our rights!”

Sri Lanka’s tea estate workers began in April to vocally demand an increase in their wages from 620 rupees ($4.14) a day to 1,000 rupees ($6.68) a day. The workers have long pushed for more money. The recent demands were initially tied to the country’s parliamentary election cycle.

The estate sector’s trade unions and plantation companies reached an agreement in October, via mediation from government agencies, for a minimum wage of 530 rupees ($3.54) per day and an incentivized wage of 730 rupees ($4.87) a day based on 75 percent attendance during the month. Under that agreement, workers who don’t show up at least 75 percent of the time will earn less than they did before. But workers who pick more than the “estate/divisional norm” earn an extra 25 rupees (17 cents) per kilogram for the extra tea leaves they harvest.

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Plantation workers at Kenilworth Estate, which employs 450 people, pluck tea and spray pesticides. Women do most of the tea plucking while other tasks are often completed by men.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

We should never destroy the plantations or make them run at a loss,” says Ganapathi Kanagaraj, a member of the Central Provincial Council and the deputy leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, one of the main trade unions involved in the October agreement. “We should protect them for our own well-being. We are dependent on them.”

But many tea estate workers oppose the agreement and continue to protest, and there is some government support for a bump in their pay.

We should never destroy the plantations or make them run at a loss. We should protect them for our own well-being. We are dependent on them.

The increase the workers want is reasonable because it is in keeping with the increased cost of living, says Sampath Manthrinayake, director of the plantation management monitoring division of the Ministry of Plantation Industries, but the final decision on any change in wages is up to the plantation companies, he says.

“There are no definite solutions to the plantation workers’ wage increment problem,” Manthrinayake says in a phone interview. “The collective agreement for the wage should be renewed every two years so that the demands of the workers is in keeping with the cost of living and also follows the country’s financial situation.”

Sri Lanka is the world’s second-largest exporter of tea, and the tea industry is one of the country’s main foreign exchange earners. In 2015, the tea industry made $1.3 billion in export earnings.

The country produced more than 70 million kilograms of tea in the first quarter of 2016, according to the Sri Lanka Tea Board.

More than 900,000 people, or about 4.5 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, live on estates, primarily tea estates. In the Nuwara Eliya district, where Kenilworth Estate is located, more than half the district’s population of 711,644 lives on tea estates.

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Tea estate workers gather to discuss their demands for a wage increase. Nadesan Thyagarajan, far left in white, is one of the workers leading the fight for a wage increase from 620 rupees ($4.14) a day to 1,000 rupees ($6.68) a day. An agreement reached between tea estates and unions in October approved a minimum wage of 530 rupees ($3.54) per day and an incentivized wage of 730 rupees ($4.87).

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Kenilworth Estate was established in 1947 and employs about 450 workers, who receive housing, medical facilities, water and support for funeral rituals, among other benefits, estate manager Manoj Ramdas says.

But some workers often don’t meet basic job requirements, so the October agreement was designed to encourage them to be more consistent, he says.

“For example, in any workplace, the worker’s punctuality in work is considered an important thing, and we have the same rules for our workers, too,” he says. “But some workers come to work only as they wish, so if they don’t meet the 75 percent attendance, they will not get the attendance incentive.”

Ramdas says the workers also need to be more financially responsible. Some spend money on alcohol and things they can’t afford, he says.

“Because of their poor financial management, they are being pushed to poverty,” he says. “If they are wise in their spending, they can really do well with their hard-earned money.”

There are no definite solutions to the plantation workers’ wage increment problem. The collective agreement for the wage should be renewed every two years so that the demands of the workers is in keeping with the cost of living and also follows the country’s financial situation.

Such comments irritate K. Sathyawathy, a 38-year-old widow who was born on the Kenilworth tea estate to parents who worked there. She began working there herself when she was just 15 years old.

“We are hardworking people,” Sathyawathy says. “We have all the rights as other people in this country, but does anyone point out how others should live or what they should buy with their money? Why are we always given instructions on how we should live our lives? All we ask is for our wage increment that we deserve.”

The lack of a wage increase is pushing more people away from tea estate jobs, Thyagarajan, the workers’ campaign leader, warns.

“If things continue like this, workers are going to leave their families and scatter to different ends to find jobs to fill their stomachs,” he says

For some estate workers, that would mean leaving a place that has always been home, however shoddy.

Sathyawathy says she would take another job if she could, but she has no choice but to work as a tea plucker. She lives with her three children, ages 11 to 17, in a two-room house that was built more than 100 years ago. The house hasn’t been properly maintained, she says.

“I don’t know when the ceiling will collapse over us but I don’t have a way to repair it,” she says. “The money I earn is not even enough to feed my children.”

Sathyawathy earns, on average, around 12,000 rupees ($80.12) a month. But after deductions for pension payments, repayment of a bank loan taken through the company, a welfare fund and other funds, she receives around 5,000 rupees ($33.38).

Her family’s food bill alone comes to around 8,000 rupees ($53.41) a month, Sathyawathy says. She buys the food on credit from a local shop and often has to borrow money to pay the bill, taking her further into debt.

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Thyaagu Thangavel, 17, rests in bed to recover from a fever. His siblings, Praveena Thangavel, 11, left, and Ajith Kumar Thangavel, 14, care for him in their home at Kenilworth Estate, a tea plantation that employs 450 people. The children’s mother, K. Sathyawathy, has worked at Kenilworth Estate since she was 15 years old. The family struggles to survive on her income of around around 12,000 rupees ($80.12) a month.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

An estate worker walks between rows of line houses at Kenilworth Estate, where 450 people live and work. The line houses were built more than 100 years ago during the British colonial era, and residents say they haven’t been maintained.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Muthamma Kanagaratnam, 66, prepares to go to the tea fields at Kenilworth Estate. She has taken part in protests to demand a higher wage. Her husband, pictured in background, is disabled and remains at home during the day. Kanagaratnam says she has birthed three children, but that all three died from malnourishment or premature birth.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

T. Selvi, a worker at Watawala Plantation, a large tea estate in Sri Lanka, leaves her 5-month-old baby at a daycare center so she can go to work. Selvi’s husband is also a tea plantation worker. Their 6-year-old son attends school.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Workers at Kenilworth Estate walk to work in the morning, carrying blue baskets provided by the estate in which they collect tea leaves. In the background is the tea factory.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Plucked tea leaves are transported to the factory at Kenilworth Estate, where they are weighed and prepared for processing.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Peri Aayi, 70, carries firewood in a bag balanced on her head as she returns home in the evening at Kenilworth Estate. Aayi says she gathers firewood in the forest each day. If she earned more money, she says she would buy a kerosene stove.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Pakiyam Pechiyamma stands inside her line house after a long day of work. She doesn’t have lights, and a large stone was rolled onto her roof to hold it in place. She sleeps on the floor at night for fear that the stone will fall through the roof and onto her bed.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Vinothini Kanthan uses a public water tap to brush her child’s teeth at Kenilworth Estate. Homes for workers at the estate don’t have indoor plumbing.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Malnutrition among children from estate worker families is high, says T. Devendran, principal of Kadawala Vigneshwara College in Ginigathhena, where Sathyawathy’s children attend school.

“Most of the plantation workers’ children don’t get the proper nutritious food when they grow up,” he says. “The malnourished child grows up to be a malnourished mother and father and this will lead to a generation of malnourished people.”

Basic education is often out of reach for the students of tea estate workers, even when the schooling is offered for free and each child receives a set of school uniforms, he says. Other costs, such as additional uniforms, shoes, exam fees and more, must all be paid by the family.

“This affects the child’s mentality and pushes them to a state where they isolate themselves from others,” he says.

Thyagarajan says he and other workers won’t back down from their demand. It’s a reasonable request, he says, and it’s not unaffordable for plantation companies.

“We will continue to fight for it,” he says. “My people should not die in enslavement or poverty.”


Sahana David Menon, GPJ, translated five interviews from Tamil.