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Wednesday, 30 August, 2000, 18:34 GMT 19:34 UK
Hardships of Sri Lanka's Indian Tamils
Tea plantation worker
Most of the community work in tea estates
By Alastair Lawson in Nuraeliya, central Sri Lanka

Tamils of Indian origin in Sri Lanka have often been described as the most discriminated section of society.

Constituting around 5% of the island's population, their ancestors were brought to Sri Lanka by the British as manual labourers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.


We are so poorly paid that I cannot afford to feed my children properly or give them a proper education

Woman tea worker
Ever since then the bulk of the community - which is distinct ethnically from the island's indigenous Tamils - have worked in tea estates in central Sri Lanka.

Government figures show that they are among the most poorly paid workers in the country, with the lowest standard of living.

But with general elections in October, political parties are vying to win the support of this minority group by promising them better pay and working conditions.

Hardship

The colourful sarees of the women who pluck tea on Sri Lanka's hilly tea estates have become famous on tea bag boxes across the world.

Tea plantation workers
Many earn less than $3 a day
Yet these workers are among the most poorly paid in Sri Lanka, in many cases earning less than $3 a day.

"We are so poorly paid that I cannot afford to feed my children properly or give them a proper education," a woman working on the tea plantation said.

"They face little prospect of finding work except on the tea estates," she added.

It has become a kind of vicious circle.

Generation after generation of Tamils of Indian origin in Sri Lanka work on the estates and, in so doing, condemn themselves to a life of financial hardship.

Effect of war

Throughout the tea industry - from the plantations to the factories where many Tamils of Indian origin work - employees say that not only are pay and conditions bad but the war with the Tamil Tigers makes life even harder.

Sri Lankan army tank
The war has made matters worse
"Its hard for us to travel anywhere or get any kind of documentation from the authorities because we are constantly suspected as being terrorists," an Indian Tamil man said.

"To make matters worse, the union leaders and politicians who are supposed to represent us do little to meet our needs," he said.

The main political party representing Tamils of Indian origin is the Ceylon Workers Congress.

It had nine MPs in the last parliament.

The party's financial secretary, Muthu Sivalingham, says that a few simple initiatives would transform the lives of the women who, he says, frequently suffer health problems caused by their work.


Ten years ago their conditions were much worse

John Jurianz
"We have to find ways and means to reduce their working hours first of all... It should be six hours and nothing more than that," he said.

But John Jurianz of the Ceylon Tea Traders association echoed the views of the government and opposition, when he argued that many estates were working hard to improve the pay and conditions of workers.

"If you look at 10 years ago, their conditions were much worse, and I would say it's unbelievable the rate of progress and the change that has been made," he said

"I'm not saying that we are finished - but we're on the right lines," Mr Jurianz said.

Seeking votes

With the outcome of October's elections expected to be close, political parties in Sri Lanka are now awakening to the demands of Indian Tamils.

Canvassing
Their votes are being keenly sought
S Balakrishna of the Centre for Development Alternatives says that after years of being disenfranchised, their votes are now keenly sought by both the government and opposition.

The clearest indication of this battle to capture votes emerged recently.

The government announced its intention to give citizenship to tens of thousands of Tamils of Indian origin who do not have Sri Lankan passports.

The opposition have described this as a cynical ploy to buy their support at the polls.

After years of neglect, the demands of this often ignored minority have at last entered mainstream politics.

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See also:

18 Aug 00 | South Asia
Sri Lanka sets election date
20 Dec 99 | South Asia
Prayer beats politics on the plantation
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