SRI LANKA From untouchables to leaders

 Sri Lanka
 Economic Development
 5th May 2008

More than 150 years ago, M. Sasikala’s ancestors were shipped from India to work on the tea plantations high in the hills of central Sri Lanka. They had no rights, no land of their own, and were essentially treated as slaves – no access to the services provided to Sri Lankan citizens, indeed no papers that they even existed at all.

Generation after generation lived, worked and died on the plantations, frozen in time in an era when workers still bowed their heads and stepped into mud-filled ditches to allow management to pass by.

But things are starting to change. Sasikala, who has lived all her 29 years on the Carolina Tea Estate, is mobilizing her fellow workers to demand their rights: access to government services, an address, a birth certificate, a voice.

Sasikala is the secretary of the Carolina Tea Estate Community Development Forum, a joint group of tea plantation workers, community members, government officials and estate managers organized with support and training from CARE. Together, they work to improve the working conditions for tea plantation workers.

“Some members of our community had never even left the plantation. My mother didn’t have a birth certificate,” said Sasikala, her tiny voice rising and picking up speed as she recounted her family’s long history of working the plantation. “The management didn’t use to listen to us. But now there is consultation. All workers have a say. “And they don’t just listen to men,” she added with a proud smile. “Of the 43 members in our group, 28 are women.”

This is a seismic shift for a community who long thought their only place was on the plantation, says Ananda Alahakoon, the Director of CARE’s Plantation Community Development Project. “In Sri Lanka, these are the poorest of the poor. They have traditionally been marginalized, economically and socially. CARE’s goal is to bring them into the mainstream,” he said. “Now, these workers, and the plantation managers, are starting to question this system that they inherited all those years ago.”

Tea plucking is a miserable job, and little has changed since the 1800s. Women – and the tea pluckers are almost all women – hang a sack from their head, filling it with 16-18 kilograms of tea leaves a day. Sasikala runs her fingers along the groove in her scalp where the strap weighs down on her, day-in, day-out, for 200 LKR a day (about 2 USD).
Day labourers off the plantation earn 500 LKR a day (about 5 USD).

Like Sasikala and her family, almost all tea pluckers live on the estate in small, colonial-era “line-houses”. Housing here is free, but if you quit your job as a tea plucker, you lose your home; unlike other communities that have inheritance rights, the rights of a tea plucker to her house is contingent on continuous service of at least one member of the family, tying future generations into an endless cycle of estate work.

But if families are going to continue to work on the plantations, things are going to have to change, says Sasikala firmly. Through the Community Development Forum, they are working with management to make long-needed repairs to the houses. At the nearby Balmoral Estate, the CARE-supported community organization worked with the estate management to renovate the local school and nursery and arrange basic services such as postal delivery and garbage collection. A new information centre is the hub for neo-natal classes for women, meetings with local government, and educational courses. And the plantation management is starting to see that happy workers make productive workers – which means higher profits.

“Before the Community Development Forum, we used to have people underperform. But the forum helped. We were able to explain to the workers why it helps all of us if we meet the quota,” said Prasanna Premachandra, the Senior Assistant Manager at Carolina Estate. “At Carolina now everyone meets the quota. Now, other plantation and government workers want to come to see how our Community Development Forum works.”

The tea workers have taken their force for change off the plantation as well. While tensions between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups affect many parts of the country, here in Nuwara Eliya the Tamil plantation workers work together with their Sinhalese neighbours, organizing festivals, learning about each other’s religions, and helping each other when needed. Like her and her husband, Sasikala’s three young children were born on the plantation. But encouraged by the new changes she and her community are making every day, she is determined that her children’s generation will be the one to finally break free from the old system.

“We used to be seen as the untouchables. We used to think we didn’t deserve anything,” said Sasikala. “Not anymore.”

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