Nuwara Eliya, located in the Central Province of Sri Lanka, is famous for its tea plantations. It is the coolest area of this island country with an average temperature of just 16°c, but things are beginning to heat up as the plantation workers demand decent remuneration for their work.
The name Nuwara Eliya means ‘city of light’ in Sinhalese, but things are far from bright for the workers who pick the tea in the elements for more than 8 hours a day.
During early 19th century the British colonialists brought in bonded labourers from Tamil Nadu in India to work on these plantations. They were employed on disastrously low wages and made to endure hard and dangerous working conditions.
The tea pickers have to be alert for snakes, foxes and venomous insects. The current workers are descendants of those who came from Tamil Nadu, and they are still super exploited.
Entire families are employed on the estates. The women of the family generally work as tea pickers while the men are often employed in a tea processing factory or the warehouse. Most of the children follow in their parents’ footsteps and end up in similar jobs.
The vicious circle carved out by the British colonialists locks generations of Tamils into these plantations with no way out.
The minimum daily wage for plantation workers is a mere 400 rupees ($3.30AUD), but some earn slightly more. Either way, they are paid a pittance given studies show that a minimum of 1538 rupees ($12.60AUD) per day is needed to support a family of four with the basics of bread and milk.
Even if two parents are working, the minimum wage falls short of covering this frugal existence.
In mid-October Socialist Party reporters, along with other members of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), visited the Pedro Estate of Kelani Valley Plantations.
Several hundred workers were on strike for the day demanding an increase to their daily wage. They were demanding that the government and the estate owners agree to their demand of 1000 rupees ($8.20AUD) per day, as the minimum they need to live.
One worker explained to us: “We work in the most dangerous conditions with the threat of snakes and insects. We are only paid 500 rupees ($4.10AUD) per day for working more than 8 hours.
“And we are only paid that amount if we manage to pick 18 kilograms of tea leaves. With the rising prices of milk, rice and other essentials it has become extremely difficult to make ends meet.
“Our children are deprived of proper education, and in turn they have no choice but to also be plantation workers in the future.
“Our houses, owned by the plantation company, are dilapidated and the paths to them are nightmarish. We want people like you to tell the whole world about our plight.”
Kelani Valley has 17 such plantations across the hill country of Nuwara Eliya. The workers across these estates have come together to organise this one-day strike. More days of action are planned if the authorities do not heed to their demands.
There is no doubt that the plantation owners can afford this modest pay rise. One kilogram of Sri Lankan black tea is sold for upwards of $30 in Australia. Each plantation produces thousands of kilograms of the product each day.
One barrier to the success of their campaign is the fact that some of the workers’ own trade union representatives are also MPs in the government. Despite being in power for several years, these so-called leaders have paid no attention to the hardship they face.
If the workers are to win their just demands they will need to go much further than these weak leaders propose. The Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Sri Lanka, the United Socialist Party, has helped to pioneer the demand for 1000 rupees per day with no strings attached.
Together we pledge to support the fight of the tea plantation workers, both on the ground and by sharing their plight with fellow workers from around the world.
Let the plantation workers of the ‘city of light’ see the light of day! Victory to their struggle!
By CWI reporters