Spilling the Tea in Sri Lanka
As large colonial-era tea plantations crumble, family-owned plots are trying to take their place and save the industry.
For nearly a year now, Priyantha Gamage, the son of a Tamil tea plucker, has been documenting the scars and scabs of the tea plantation workers on the Deniyaya Estate in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. This is just one of his many projects aimed at recording and improving estate conditions while he finishes his studies to become a Catholic priest. He explained that after a brief national ban on the herbicide glyphosate, weed overgrowth in tea fields skyrocketed. The change in landscape provided a perfect breeding ground for leeches, which in turn left workers with more bites. Singh Ponniah, a union leader in the heart of tea country, summed it up: The fields are “turning into jungles.”
The barefoot leaf pluckers, too, acknowledge that things are getting more difficult. “We want to leave from here, from this danger,” a worker named Vilechemi said, with Gamage translating. Her estate saw lethal landslides and flooding recently, and she fears it will happen again. Unfortunately, families like hers are often trapped where they are by the debts they owe to the estate. Even after her 40 years of labor, Vilechemi lacks the resources to build a new house and make the transition out of life on the plantation. “Forty long years,” Gamage emphasized, “you see how much the estate has earned out of her?”
These laborers, the bedrock of the tea industry, are known locally as Estate Tamils. Originally from South India, they emigrated to Sri Lanka throughout the 1800s at the strongly worded request of their colonial overlords. For five generations, the workers have lived in poor housing conditions on isolated plantations as they maintain, pluck, and process 675 million pounds of Ceylon tea each year, the vast majority for export. The Ceylon tea industry constitutes 11 percent of Sri Lanka’s total exports, worth nearly 2 percent of the nation’s GDP, a value of $1.37 billion.
In a recent publication commemorating the tea industry’s sesquicentennial, Sri Lanka’s Institute of Policy Studies estimated that, over the last 20 years, as many as 70,000 Estate Tamils have abandoned working in large plantations. The remaining 200,000—down from nearly half a million in the 1980s—are facing increasingly difficult conditions as the colonial-era infrastructure disintegrates. While the traditional large-scale estates decline, mainly due to worker migration, smaller and usually family-owned tea farms have been on the rise. These small farms are responsible for a growing proportion of Sri Lanka’s tea exports each year. A few trailblazers in the conventional plantations have tried to copy that success, but progress is limited. And if the established estates don’t change, more land will spoil, and levels of overall tea production may never recover. In the meantime, the workers at large estates will continue to face grim living conditions as money becomes even scarcer.
When he can, Gamage helps young people access education to get them off the estate, something the children love him for as much as the chocolate he occasionally brings them. But securing a good education is not always possible. A lack of resources in the plantation sector and its tendency to lag well behind the rest of the country in education and opportunity stymies his efforts. “So that’s why I want to take those children that are capable of studying to a town school,” he said. But even those who make it out often face discrimination outside the estate.
That’s due, in part, to a law passed just after Sri Lanka’s independence from Great Britain. The Ceylon Citizenship Act No. 18 of 1948 stated that anyone who wished to obtain citizenship in the new nation had to prove that their parents had been born within the new borders. In that moment, nearly 1 million Estate Tamils—then 11 percent of Sri Lanka’s total population—became stateless, according Daniel Bass, an anthropologist who has extensively studied the community. This Tamil group only fully gained citizenship in 2003 at the repeated urging of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Although ethnically separate from the Tamils of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement, which waged a brutal civil war against the Sinhalese majority for many decades, the tea workers still feared for their safety through the years of conflict.
It was in this environment that Gamage’s low-caste Hindu Tamil tea plucker mother married her Sinhalese Buddhist supervisor. While not entirely unheard of at the time, it was a fairly rare type of union. “But in this case,” he said, “my father was a good man. He didn’t see any difference.” He told me the story while we visited the home of one of his students. The small living space bustled with an impromptu sewing class while an infant crawled around on the floor.
Throughout the larger plantations in Sri Lanka, such so-called line houses provided by the estate are common. Most often, these simple structures consist of a series of five independent rooms with each unit meant for one family. The small windows typically have no glass, and old cloth curtains offer little privacy. When people rest at home after work, the naked light bulb usually stays off in favor of the dull glow of a television’s cathode ray tube. The outhouses are shared.
The most ambitious of the estate workers have managed to improve their dwellings through a combination penny-pinching, group savings, and borrowing against their retirement. The last method is both the most common and the riskiest, as it can lead to spiraling debt—of the kind Vilechemi faces. Another worker, Jayanti, showed her living conditions. “This,” she said indicating the original room at the rear, “is the estate-provided house.” A single mattress meant for four family members—the couple and their early teen children—occupied most of the space. Her family took out a loan against retirement to build a new room in the front for her mother-in-law. To make the payment, Jayanti, like a growing number of Estate Tamils, decided to leave Sri Lanka to be a domestic servant in the Middle East soon after our interview. She is due to return home in late 2020.
In addition to shelter, the estate provides basic education and health care. To pay for these and other benefits, an agreed upon amount comes out of the workers’ paychecks alongside a somewhat ironic monthly deduction for about a pound of powdered tea. The workers are left with take-home earnings of around 600 rupees, or less than $4, in daily wages. And even if one of their perennial strike efforts for 1,000 rupees a day eventually succeeds, they would still earn only about half Sri Lanka’s average urban wage. The youngest generation of Estate Tamils have figured that out and leave in massive numbers to work in towns, often in garment shops. Those who stay face surging alcoholism rates alongside a rise in violence against women.
On the bigger estates, at the same time as unions and workers try to push salaries up, the plantations’ productivity has gone down. Besides worker migration, other factors of the decline include soil exhaustion after over 150 years of continuous cultivation and decades of poor agricultural practices, such as improper use of fertilizer and mistimed replanting.
In a different time, like when the island’s share in the global tea trade was 40 percent in 1970, the plantations would not have had trouble surviving—and they might even have had enough resources to better manage environmental concerns. But a new crop of tea-growing countries—Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Malawi, Malaysia, Peru, and Vietnam—have begun to produce for export. Combine that with expanding exports from Kenya, India, and China, the traditional rivals, and the Sri Lankan share of the global tea trade has dropped to 15 percent. Moreover, despite the relatively low wages within the nation, estate workers still earn up to four times as much as their Kenyan and Vietnamese counterparts. This means Sri Lanka now produces less tea at more cost compared with its international competitors. “To tell you frankly,” one estate manager outside Hatton said, “the plantations are facing a lot of crises in Sri Lanka.”
One solution may be the outgrower system. In this model, larger plantations hand over management of an unproductive or abandoned plot to estate families. Theoretically, doing so has several benefits. Workers would have more incentive to maintain the land and would maximize the estate’s output at minimal cost to management. The idea comes from the smallholder tea plantations that started proliferating in the 1970 and ’80s when the nation was preoccupied with civil war. Those smallholder farms are typically smaller than 20 acres, or six city blocks, and are mostly located in the southernmost parts of tea country. Since there is low overhead, wages are usually higher: Farmers can earn around 100 rupees, or 60 cents, for every three pounds, which is over $8 for the standard 44 pounds. And since the smallholder farms tend to be family owned and operated, the work environment is often more pleasant. Together, they now produce over 70 percent of Sri Lankan tea.
One of these small farms, the Amba Estate, has been able to capitalize on a growing tourist market as well as a demand for organic products. Nitanjane Senadire, the production manager, told me he was happy for those workers who “are leaving the country and getting better jobs overseas and getting better salaries.” But that development comes with a price. “Good for them and good for the country. Good for the future,” he said, “but unfortunately very bad for tea.” To entice traditional Estate Tamils, or really anyone who wants to work (50 percent of Amba’s workers are Sinhalese), he offers base salaries that are around twice those of larger plantations as well as revenue sharing. Workers come from the larger traditional estates as well as neighboring small towns, and there is a waiting list of would-be employees.
Senadire sees the end of the tea industry as a possibility—“That can happen!”—but he won’t give in easily. “If we give up on tea, I think it’s a very stupid idea,” he said. While large estates struggle, business for him has been good. And since Amba has a backorder of three months, Senadire doesn’t think it will be a problem if all of his neighbors were to copy his business model. As long as other small farms maintain the quality, everyone “should be able to find a niche market,” he said.
Ram Ramakrishna, a tea broker with nearly 40 years of estate administration experience, had some thoughts about how the system would work on a national scale. At one point he managed 8,000 workers. He was proud of that, if also a little overwhelmed by its memory. “The British system of having large plantations has to decentralize,” he said. When asked why the industry was failing, his smile instantly dropped. “The industry is not failing,” he clarified, “there is a shortage of workers in the plantations.” He was confident that “the youth will come back the moment they know a lot of money is involved.” Like with Amba, he said, the most successful plantations are the smallholders. “That is the way forward.”
Despite his optimism, his professional advice for estates with failing acres is to avoid replanting tea as the original trees planted by the British reach the end of their natural 150-year life cycle. “Take the best tea and plant the balance of the land with timber,” Ramakrishna said. “Because you cannot sustain it. You will not have the people.”
Back in the endless hills of the Deniyaya Estate, Gamage walked through several workers’ line houses. Speaking with a mouth full of betel leaf, one worker, named Ponanga, said she “feels sorry for the estate system” in its state of decline. Gamage clarified. “They don’t like it,” he said, “but yes, that’s their world.” When asked about her happiest memory there, Ponanga, whose teeth and tongue were died bright red by decades of chewing the leaf, paused for a moment, spat, and shook her head. Gamage interpreted again. “No, they don’t find a happy moment as such,” he said. “They spend time: ‘What to do? We have to work. And we have to earn and then only we can eat.’ That’s their idea.” He looked back at Ponanga and smiled. “We have to bring the awareness of what they lost,” he said.