Ceylon is one of the most famous teas in the world, but the people who pick it are some of the most invisible.
So say human rights activists who have launched a campaign to raise awareness about the low pay and "appalling conditions" endured by Sri Lanka’s tea pickers.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a cup of Ceylon in your local café, chances are you paid more for it than the tea pickers earn for a day’s work, says Minority Rights Group (MRG), which is backing the campaign.
The industry earned 1.16 billion euros ($1.5 billion) last year. But the pickers were paid just 380 rupees a day – about 2 to 3 euros.
“What we want to know is where is the money going? Why are the biggest contributors to Sri Lanka’s tea industry the poorest and most marginalised in Sri Lanka?” said Fred Carver, campaign director of Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, which is also supporting the initiative.
Sri Lanka’s 150,000 tea pickers are predominantly Indian Origin Tamils, also known as upcountry Tamils. They are distinct from the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka who were embroiled in a 26-year civil war with Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese population that ended in 2009.
Indian Origin Tamils were brought over by the British in the nineteenth century to work on tea, coffee and rubber plantations in what was then called Ceylon. But they were not recognised as citizens when the country became independent in 1948.
They were stateless, and as such were deprived of many of the rights and benefits of full citizens. They were finally granted citizenship in 2003, but many continue to have problems with documentation, which affects their right to vote, send their children to school, get government jobs and open bank accounts.
“It’s ironic that the smiling faces of the tea pickers are used to market the country and draw visitors, but they are pretty much an invisible community within Sri Lanka,” said Chris Chapman, MRG’s head of conflict prevention.
Just over half the tea pickers are women. They work longer hours on the plantations than men but they do not have access to union positions.
“Many women do not earn enough to meet the basic needs of their families,” said Chapman. “Alcoholism has become entrenched and sexual and domestic violence are serious problems.”
Unable to afford adequate food, many women are poorly nourished and their babies are low-weight.
Plantation workers often suffer from serious health problems as a result of exposure to pesticides and the nature of their work, but they have some of the poorest health facilities in the country, according to MRG, one of seven organisations backing the initiative.
Campaigners are asking tea drinkers to sign an online petition calling on Sri Lanka’s government to work with the corporate sector, trade unions and individual small-holders to improve the working and living conditions of plantation Tamils, address high poverty levels and improve education and health facilities.
They are also demanding plantation workers are given land and housing rights, which they say were promised long ago by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The plantation workers still live in very basic barrack-like “line houses” – long rows of small units with shared toilets that date back to colonial times. Although they have lived there for 150 years they have no property or land rights. This means they have to make other arrangements once they retire.
The industry – the third biggest contributor to Sri Lanka’s economy – produced 328.7 million kg of tea last year. Sri Lanka is one of the top three suppliers of tea to the European Union. But the vast bulk of its exports go to the Middle East and Russia.