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.
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.