The real cost of your cup of tea

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The real cost of your cup of tea

by Marco Picardi


A tea picker in Sri Lanka. (© Luca Picardi )

At 6.30am in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, just after sunrise, you can see the mountains of the Knuckle Mountain Range. Men and women walk out of an old Hindu temple on a quiet hillside. They walk along simple paths in flip-flops or bare feet up the hills. When they get to the high tea fields, the men go one way, to cut the large plants with their curved knives; and the women go another way to pick the leaves with long sticks.

They work under the hot sun until the mid-afternoon. They only have short breaks if it rains. There are many leeches and poisonous snakes. They pick the tea leaves by hand, and this needs a lot of attention; the women choose only the greenest leaves, and the men cut the plants to the same level by eye.

Finally, when they get the minimum amount of tea leaves, the women carry them in large sacks down the hill. They weigh them, and then they are taken to a factory nearby for processing. The average 18-kilo work day earns them about 380 rupees ($3).

This very hard day’s work has changed very little for the Tamils in Sri Lanka since the British brought the generations before from Southern India in the 19th century, to work on the tea and coffee plantations. British Ceylon no longer exists, but the difficult working and living conditions for the tea workers continue.

All stateless Persons of Indian Origin became citizens in 2003, but most tea pickers in Sri Lanka still have no housing and land rights or access to basic services. These Tamils, who are about five per cent of the country’s population, live in the same two-room small houses that the British built for their great grandparents. These families have no running water or electricity. Their coal stoves are the main source of light and heating. And the homes have bad ventilation, so there is a lot of respiratory disease.

The companies that own the tea estates usually also own the small towns where the tea pickers live. This means that tea pickers have no official rights. They are working in exchange for a temporary home. There is no pension, so women usually work until they are very old to support themselves.

They are now citizens, but many tea pickers still have great difficulties getting the correct documents to get healthcare and education. There are many problems: linguistic, cultural and geographic. These problems stop them getting the national welfare services. And because the tea companies own the housing, the government does not want to help the Tamils. This means they cannot leave the plantations and cannot leave the cycle of poverty.

An important report in 2012 (the UNDP Sri Lanka Human Development Report) said that the people in the tea estates, and the people in the conflict areas in the north, are in the most extreme poverty. But the International Monetary Fund classified Sri Lanka in 2010 as a middle-income country. There is a big difference between the different people. This is because the country’s economic success is in part from the development of Ceylon tea. The island is the joint third largest tea producer in the world, and tea is the third biggest part of its economy. But here in the Hill Country it’s clear that the tea workers have no share in this billion-dollar industry.

The government is now speaking more about this problem. In 2012, they said they will give more money to help the tea pickers have a better life. But the lives of these Tamils is not really improving. In 2014 tea pickers are still in a form of caste system that is keeping them in extreme poverty.

There is a big difference between all the money from the tea industry in Sri Lanka, and the poor tea pickers. This will not improve unless they bring economic democracy to the Hill Country tea pickers.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).