Photo courtesy of Mother Jones

The irony is not lost on the Malaiyaga Thamilar community. A stamp was issued in commemoration of former minister and leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, the late Arumugan Thondaman, but most of the Hill Country Tamils he represented did not have an address for their line rooms where a letter could be received.

As the community marks 200 years since the British officially brought workers from South India as labour for its coffee plantations carved out of the hills of Ceylon, while the white bosses have been replaced by brown ones and tea has taken over coffee, not much has changed in their lives – the same squalid living conditions, lack of access to adequate health care and education and a host of social and economic ills that go unaddressed by successive governments.

The first blatant discrimination against the community in 1948 with the Citizenship Act that rendered them stateless; India also refused to accept them as its citizens.

It was not until 2003, with the Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin Act, that citizenship was conferred on 1.64 million people of Indian origin.

The Indian Tamil community has become known as the Malaiyaga Thamilar. They are mainly concentrated in the Uva, Sabaragamuwa and Central Provinces but are also scattered throughout the country.

According to the 2012 official census, the number Indian origin Tamils was 839,504 (4.12%), making them the fourth largest ethnicity in Sri Lanka. The total population of Tamils is 3.1 million. Of these 1.6 million live in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

More than 300,000 people work in the tea plantations. In 2022, revenue from tea exports amounted to Rs. 411 billion. The UN World Food Programme estimated that 44% of families in tea estate areas were food insecure – twice the figure of urban districts.

“Tea pickers claim that estate owners failed to support them during the country’s unprecedented economic crisis, which has seen prices of food, fuel and medicine soar, without wages rising to match. The pickers reported supervisors refusing to pay them what they were owed and incidences of verbal abuse. Some of the pickers said they had so little money that they were having to skip meals and felt forced to send their children to work,” according to an article in the UK Guardian.

In response to a Guardian investigation some tea manufacturers, including Tetley and Lipton, are examining working conditions on the plantations of its suppliers. Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance are conducting inquiries after it was revealed that some workers on 10 certified estates could not afford to eat and were living in squalid conditions. Tetley said it had suspended work with some central estates while it conducted inquiries. Ekaterra, which owns Lipton and PG Tips, said it was in contact with the Rainforest Alliance over the findings, the Guardian article said.

In May, the Institute of Social Development (ISD), an advocacy organisation for the community, commemorated the 200 years history of the Malaiyaga Thamilar in Nuwara Eliya with the Malaiyaga 200 event to enlighten local people and the international community in order to foster solidarity in their struggle for justice. The event featured an exhibition of historical documents, art, culture and social fabric of the Malaiyaga Thamilar, highlighting their contribution to the development of Sri Lanka.

Groundviews spoke to Mr. P. Muthulingam, Executive Director of ISD, about the outcome of the event, the situation of the community and what should be done to improve their lives.

What was the response to the exhibition?

Several thousands of people came from all over the country. Many said it was the first time they had seen how the estate people were suffering and also the contribution they were making to the country. Visitors said they now realised how much they owed to the plantation community and how the community has been excluded from society. We had an art exhibition, a video documentary competition for young people, workshops and seminars. We raised awareness about their housing, land and postal issues. There was good media and social media coverage. We put out a declaration and a set of demands. Several diplomats visited the plantations and spoke to the people. The main outcome was the greater awareness about the community, which can be used to bring pressure to policy makers and politicians to bring about change. We are planning to take the exhibition to Colombo and other main cities.

Why do you think this declaration and demands for change will make a difference at a time when the government is trying to relax labour laws?

Workers’ rights separate from economic rights and livelihood rights. We can’t accept changing laws to support employers. Trade unions and politicians representing workers must oppose these moves. At the same time there must be affirmative action for community’s upliftment. Whoever comes to power needs support from plantation community. In 2006, a 10 year programme was put forward but it was not implemented. We are now campaigning to bring in affirmative action.

How did Covid-19 and the economic crisis affect the community?

In 1992 when the government privatised the plantations, the companies said they would not take responsibility for the social welfare of the estate workers. The government said it would take it on but did nothing. There are never proper allocations of funds in the budget for estate infrastructure. Most people don’t have addresses to get letters delivered. When new villages are formed, the estate sector is excluded and therefore not eligible for facilities. ISD is fighting for inclusion of plantation settlements under Pradeshya Sabhas. In every law and policy there is structural exclusion and discrimination. Covid created many problems such as increases in early marriage, early pregnancy and domestic violence. Young people working in cities are unemployed; they can’t afford increased food prices and accommodation so they have returned to the estates. Garment factory workers can’t pay higher boarding house fees because their salaries have not increased. Although in 2003 people of Indian origin became citizens of this country, they are not treated equally.

Why have elected representatives and trade unions not fought for the community?

The trade unions and political parties have raised issues and fought for labour rights and wage increases. It is the Sinhala politicians who betrayed the promises they made to improve the lives of the workers. People who live outside plantation should raise their voices for this community. Every campaign manifesto says the parties will give land rights, housing and other facilities but once they come into power, there are no budget allocations. The country is living off the blood and sweat of the plantation community but does nothing for them in return.