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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 September 2005, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
Sri Lanka's 'forgotten' tea workers
Dumeetha Luthra
By Dumeetha Luthra
BBC News, Colombo

Tea garden workers plucking tea leaves
Even basic facilities for the tea workers are rare
There is no electricity for daily tasks in Malar Malligai's simple, concrete home in central Sri Lanka.

Gripping her baby with one hand, she pounds the flour for the family's daily meals with the other.

Two generations of her family have worked on tea plantations in the country, which are some of the most deprived places on the island.

There is a growing resentment among tea garden workers in the hilly part of the country - home to most of the tea plantations.

For them, the tsunami has highlighted how much they have been ignored. They feel money has come in for tsunami relief but their plight has been forgotten.

Opportunities scarce

The hills in this part of the island resonate with the past and the present. It is an idyllic scene with tea plantations as far as the eye can see.

We are angry because we are not getting any help. No assistance is given to the hill country people. We need houses, electricity
Perumal Thirulogasunther

However, the beauty is only skin deep, for this is one of Sri Lanka's poorest regions.

The tea pickers' wages depend on how many leaves they collect. Their average earnings are about $60 a month.

The workers want something different for their children.

But as Malligai's brother, Perumal Thirulogasunther, explains, opportunities are scarce.

"We are angry because we are not getting any help. No assistance is given to the hill country people. We need houses, electricity."

Spokesman for the think-tank Foundation for Co-Existence, Sathivel Balakrishnan, says the plantation workers have been deprived for decades.

"They feel sympathy for those affected by the tsunami. But definitely, the amount of aid that's coming and the way the government has been generating and mobilising resources for tsunami reconstruction will invariably have an impact among the tea plantation workers, especially the youth," he says.

"Why is the government not generating assistance for their development?"

Barely touched

Even basic facilities for the tea plantation workers are rare.

There is no running water here, only the back-breaking slog of pulling up buckets from a well.

The houses here were built under the British more than half a century ago.

Workers plucking tea leaves in Sri Lanka
The tea pickers' wages depend on how many leaves they collect

They have been hardly touched since.

Tea brought in over $700m last year but less than one per cent was spent on workers' living conditions.

Each kilogram of leaves, carefully weighed and signed for, brings in foreign exchange to the country.

For more than a century, these leaves have helped sustain the island.

The government argues things are improving.

"We have not neglected them. We are trying our best to allow the next generation at least to be able to stand up and live as normal citizens of this country," says Anura Yapa, the plantations and industry minister.

The government accepts their living conditions are bad, but it denies the accusation that they have been forgotten.

The tea plantation workers are thankful they have not suffered anything like a tsunami. And the disaster relief effort is certainly not without serious problems.

But for tea workers watching the relief money pour in, it again shows that they are the abandoned and isolated of the island.

What do you think about conditions for tea workers in Sri Lanka? Do you have any experience of conditions for tea estate workers elsewhere in South Asia?

Your comments:

It is true that the plantation sector is the marginalised of Sri Lanka's population. I prefer to make no comparisons. Tsunami has brought untold suffering to many of our brothers and sisters in our country's coast. They need to breath in air of hope. But negelecting the plantation sector is an issue that international community should address. Education, housing, medical facilities, transportation, etc are urgent needs of the 'up country' Tamils.
Yves Joseph, kandy, srilanka

My home town is kandy, while i was in Sri Lanka I met many plantions workers and visited some of them as well, the condtion that they are living is very bad such as toilets they have to share with number of other occupants in the same block. I think in Sri Lankan media or in politcs it rarerly talked about, they should receive same living condition as the other Sri Lankans. They are the backbone of the Ceylon tea industry.
Aleem, London, England

I visited a tea plantation last summer in Sri Lanka. It was very interesting and the area is beautiful but it is easy to see the surrounding poverty. The reason for the conditions are two-fold. First, the tea pickers are Tamil (not directly related to the Tamils of the north, but immigrants from Tamil Nadu in India brought in more recently by the British). They are still seen as outsiders by the majority Sinhalese population. Second, the price of tea is negotiated/fixed on the commodity market and the bulk of the money is pocketed by greedy middle men and plantation owners with little regard for the tea pickers plight. Some fairness needs to be driven back into the system.
Huw Llewelyn, London, UK

Having researched small holder tea lands in Sri Lanka, the situation is different. The down country tea growing populations in the smallholdings are relatively well-to-do, with lighting, TVs, education for their kids, and sometimes vehicles. However the up country estate workers are primarily Tamils, with many unable to even converse in Sinhala. Very rarely one does find a Tamil family hired to work on large tracts of tea land in the down country, and their conditions are not very different than the estate workers one presented in the news article. In a country under Emergency Rule and a delicate peace agreement, a difference as jarring as this becomes easy target for resentment from the Island's minority, which can lead to distasteful consequences for both sides.
Roshni, West Lafayette, USA

Our church is involved in a ministry, a girl's home and vocational center in NuwaraEliya. I have been in the homes from which some of the girls come - parents willingly give up their children hoping a better education will spell a better future for them. Our dream is for the first school in Sri Lanka that will educate Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim young people in the same classrooms.
Thomas Blossom, Indianapolis, USA

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