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Fighting Poverty, Sri Lanka's Tea Estate Workers Demand Pay Increase

Global Press Journal by Sahana David Menon
12 Jan 2017, 08:04 GMT+10

GINIGATHHENA, SRI LANKA - A small group of people gathers at the junction of two narrow roads, deep inside Kenilworth Estate, a tea plantation in this island's mountainous interior.

Nadesan Thyagarajan, 61, calls out to people still inside their homes in an attempt to grow the crowd.

"Everyone draw yourselves closer, please listen to what I say!" he calls. "Think for yourselves, stop being cooped up inside your houses! Come out and get engaged in our conversations."

INSIDE THE STORY: Ignored by sources and pressed by editors, a Global Press reporter discovers a way to get the information she needs. In the process, she uncovers the real story, ignored by other news organizations, about tea plantation workers and their fight for a higher wage. Read the blog.

Thyagarajan, a worker at Kenilworth Estate, is a leader of a campaign for a higher daily wage for tea estate employees.

Once about two dozen people gather, Thyagarajan shares plans for a protest march - one of many - in the nearby town of Ginigathhena.

"We aren't getting paid what we deserve," Thyagarajan says. "We should fight for our rights!"

Sri Lanka's tea estate workers began in April to vocally demand an increase in their wages from 620 rupees ($4.14) a day to 1,000 rupees ($6.68) a day. The workers have long pushed for more money. The recent demands were initially tied to the country's parliamentary election cycle.

The estate sector's trade unions and plantation companies reached an agreement in October, via mediation from government agencies, for a minimum wage of 530 rupees ($3.54) per day and an incentivized wage of 730 rupees ($4.87) a day based on 75 percent attendance during the month. Under that agreement, workers who don't show up at least 75 percent of the time will earn less than they did before. But workers who pick more than the "estate/divisional norm" earn an extra 25 rupees (17 cents) per kilogram for the extra tea leaves they harvest.

Plantation workers at Kenilworth Estate, which employs 450 people, pluck tea and spray pesticides. Women do most of the tea plucking while other tasks are often completed by men.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

"We should never destroy the plantations or make them run at a loss," says Ganapathi Kanagaraj, a member of the Central Provincial Council and the deputy leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, one of the main trade unions involved in the October agreement. "We should protect them for our own well-being. We are dependent on them."

But many tea estate workers oppose the agreement and continue to protest, and there is some government support for a bump in their pay.

Tea estate workers gather to discuss their demands for a wage increase. Nadesan Thyagarajan, far left in white, is one of the workers leading the fight for a wage increase from 620 rupees ($4.14) a day to 1,000 rupees ($6.68) a day. An agreement reached between tea estates and unions in October approved a minimum wage of 530 rupees ($3.54) per day and an incentivized wage of 730 rupees ($4.87).

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Kenilworth Estate was established in 1947 and employs about 450 workers, who receive housing, medical facilities, water and support for funeral rituals, among other benefits, estate manager Manoj Ramdas says.

But some workers often don't meet basic job requirements, so the October agreement was designed to encourage them to be more consistent, he says.

"For example, in any workplace, the worker's punctuality in work is considered an important thing, and we have the same rules for our workers, too," he says. "But some workers come to work only as they wish, so if they don't meet the 75 percent attendance, they will not get the attendance incentive."

Ramdas says the workers also need to be more financially responsible. Some spend money on alcohol and things they can't afford, he says.

"Because of their poor financial management, they are being pushed to poverty," he says. "If they are wise in their spending, they can really do well with their hard-earned money."

An estate worker walks between rows of line houses at Kenilworth Estate, where 450 people live and work. The line houses were built more than 100 years ago during the British colonial era, and residents say they haven't been maintained.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Muthamma Kanagaratnam, 66, prepares to go to the tea fields at Kenilworth Estate. She has taken part in protests to demand a higher wage. Her husband, pictured in background, is disabled and remains at home during the day. Kanagaratnam says she has birthed three children, but that all three died from malnourishment or premature birth.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

T. Selvi, a worker at Watawala Plantation, a large tea estate in Sri Lanka, leaves her 5-month-old baby at a daycare center so she can go to work. Selvi's husband is also a tea plantation worker. Their 6-year-old son attends school.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Workers at Kenilworth Estate walk to work in the morning, carrying blue baskets provided by the estate in which they collect tea leaves. In the background is the tea factory.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Plucked tea leaves are transported to the factory at Kenilworth Estate, where they are weighed and prepared for processing.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Peri Aayi, 70, carries firewood in a bag balanced on her head as she returns home in the evening at Kenilworth Estate. Aayi says she gathers firewood in the forest each day. If she earned more money, she says she would buy a kerosene stove.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Pakiyam Pechiyamma stands inside her line house after a long day of work. She doesn't have lights, and a large stone was rolled onto her roof to hold it in place. She sleeps on the floor at night for fear that the stone will fall through the roof and onto her bed.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Vinothini Kanthan uses a public water tap to brush her child's teeth at Kenilworth Estate. Homes for workers at the estate don't have indoor plumbing.

Sahana David Menon, GPJ Sri Lanka

Malnutrition among children from estate worker families is high, says T. Devendran, principal of Kadawala Vigneshwara College in Ginigathhena, where Sathyawathy's children attend school.

"Most of the plantation workers' children don't get the proper nutritious food when they grow up," he says. "The malnourished child grows up to be a malnourished mother and father and this will lead to a generation of malnourished people."

Basic education is often out of reach for the students of tea estate workers, even when the schooling is offered for free and each child receives a set of school uniforms, he says. Other costs, such as additional uniforms, shoes, exam fees and more, must all be paid by the family.

"This affects the child's mentality and pushes them to a state where they isolate themselves from others," he says.

Thyagarajan says he and other workers won't back down from their demand. It's a reasonable request, he says, and it's not unaffordable for plantation companies.

"We will continue to fight for it," he says. "My people should not die in enslavement or poverty."

Sahana David Menon, GPJ, translated five interviews from Tamil.

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