Advocacy, Colombo, Nuwara Eliya, Peace and Conflict

Causing a storm in a tea plantation

The plight of the Sri Lankan tea plantation worker is a well known issue in the country, and even though the law now grants them with full citizenship rights, the real story is that these rights are very often not realised.

Plantation workers are mainly Tamils of Indian origin who were brought to the island in the late 19th century by the British. Being largely confined to the tea estates on which they earned their pitiful living, workers formed their own communities. Being so heavily dependent on the tea estate owners for most of their basic needs such as healthcare, housing and water access, these communities have almost always existed socially and economically isolated from the rest of the country. As a by product of this, plantation workers to this day suffer from low self-esteem, ill health and also have poor levels of education and language barriers to contend with. There have been countless reports of instances where tea estate owners have abused the rights of workers by demolishing parts of their homes in order to make room for more plantations, in a desperate bid to cope with growing competition on the international market. Furthermore, schools are often under staffed and estate children have few role models for alternative occupations, continuing this bitter cycle of dependency, isolation and vulnerability.

Tamils of Indian Origin

In order to highlight these concerns and to make plantation workers more aware of their rights, a project was recently launched – but one with a difference. The WUSC street drama troupe consists of about 30 young people from the plantation sector who travel around different tea estates to conduct music and drama performances. The medium is very simple – it all takes place in the open air and very few props or costumes are used. The issues that are tackled in these performances, however, are far from simple and include alcoholism, gender equity, children’s rights, discrimination and physical abuse. Depending on what social problems plague a particular tea estate, the troupe adapts its material accordingly so that they have the maximum impact.

By using this very direct yet creative approach, the troupe provides its audiences with an opportunity to question their circumstances, bring sensitive topics into the open and help them understand their rights as Sri Lankan citizens. The project is part of WUSC’s (World University Service of Canada) Plantation Communities Project, which brings estate workers, plantation management, unions, local NGOs and government departments together to take steps to improve the quality of life of plantation workers and their families.

As tea is one of Sri Lanka’s most important and profitable exports, improving the conditions for plantation workers is essential for the sustainability of the industry, which is now having to compete on the international market. Projects such as WUSC’s dance troupe therefore not only work on a local level, raising awareness about the problems faced by the plantation communities, but they are also working towards the economic development of the country, which are both important steps forward for Sri Lanka as a nation.

  • Parakrama

    It is true that the plantation workers face many hardships. Having said so the solution lies in increasing the productivity of the plantations so that profits could be generated for the worker. This should be done by using soil conservation, providing micro and macro nutrients to the soil and also adopting labour saving harvesting techniques. This is the only permanent and lasting solution.

    Your article deals with temporary measures which can be only applied to a handful of plantations. It goes to show how little hands on experience the writer has with the plantation sector. I just wonder if the writer is trying to further the cause of the LTTE terrorist by inciting violence in the plantations?

  • SH

    I wonder if the dog curled up behind the spectators (bottom left hand corner of the the picture) could be taking in a subliminal message by the LTTE? They say its a dogs life..this dog seems to be having a good time. Sorry…just noticed it and had to comment. Nice picture.

  • Nia

    Parakrama,

    I admit that I don’t possess a huge amount of knowledge about micro and macro nutrients but I don’t agree that it’s necessarily the best option to replace people with machines and chemicals in order to boost productivity.This would mean thousands of plantation workers would be unemployed with very bleak prospects, having very little experience in any other trade, which would in turn cause yet more social problems. Alternatively, conditions could be improved and other markets could be targeted such as the West, where consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about where goods come from and working conditions and salaries of labourers in developing countries. UK based company Fairtrade has seen its sales double in the last 3 years and its tea and coffee is now being sold by major companies such as Starbucks. Also, how can you be so sure that profits generated by using alternative agricultural methods would end up in the pockets of the workers?

    As for ‘hands on’ experience with the plantation sector, I accept that I am no expert but I do have experience in the arts and using them to raise awareness about social problems, which is ultimately what the article deals with. I am therefore unsure as to how making people aware of their citizenship rights and helping them to overcome social problems such as alcoholism, through the medium of drama, would incite violence or how this would further any cause other than human rights.