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General Features


Tea pickers

Just 64p a day for tea pickers in Sri Lanka

BBC Oxford’s Jenny Rawden is spending a year in Sri Lanka with her husband who is doing tsunami response work for the aid agency World Vision. Here's her diary for August.


A beautiful young girl smiles shyly and, as we pass her, I notice she is toothless.  This girl is a tea picker in Kandy, a mountainous area at the island's heart. She is wearing a brightly coloured striped red, yellow and black top that is done up with pins. She has a gold stud in both sides of her nose, coffee coloured skin, big brown eyes and black plaited hair that reaches below her waist.

The sides of the mountain we are both on are steep. She stands bare foot amongst the tea bushes, picking off leaves and putting them into big white plastic sack attached to the back of her head.

Tea pickers
Tea pickers

I think how lucky I am to be here in Sri Lanka looking at a similar scene to the one on the side of my box of tea bags back in the UK, and make a mental note to try some of the tea from this estate.

Sri Lanka is one of the world's main tea exporters. The leaves are grown on the central mountain ranges as well as in the south of the country. The teas produced in each region have their own individual characteristics of flavour, aroma, and colour.

According to Sri Lanka Tea Board, "The plantations around Kandy, supply what are known as 'mid country teas'. These are notable for full bodied strong tea, which appeal to everyone who likes a good thick coloury brew." Just how I like it.

The tea growing areas of Sri Lanka are stunning. Lush green mountainsides surrounded by waterfalls, paths lined with large pink wild flowers and trees growing fruit. You could be fooled into thinking how idyllic it might be spending all day out in the open, looking at the views, and picking a few leaves of tea.

But nothing is further from the truth.

The beautiful young lady I had just seen is just one of hundreds of other plantation workers whose ancestors were brought to Sri Lanka from India by the British in the 19th century specifically to work on plantations. The women, who look to be aged anywhere between 17 and 70, spend their days on the steep slopes picking tea.

And, like any industry, they have targets to meet. These frail, shy women must pick 16kg of tea ever day. International aid and development agency World Vision says that in Nuwara Eliya, one of the districts where it works, the women get paid 7 rupees per kilo. That's just 4p. A couple of days ago I bought 1kg of rice from a supermarket which cost 115 rupees (60p), so it is almost a day's wage.

As it starts to rain the women wrap plastic sheeting around their waists and on their heads like a cloak, and carry on picking. I wish I could give them all waterproof trousers, coats and shoes. The rain brings out leeches, which attach to the pickers' bodies until they have sucked enough blood to be full, before dropping off. Snakes also live amongst the tea bushes so the women have to be careful not to step on them with their bare feet.

Kandy
Kandy

At around 5pm, the women have to climb the mountainside with the heavy sacks on their backs to be weighed. Often they have to walk several kilometres.  According to Christian Aid, the Indian Tamil plantation workers are, on the whole, from lower castes and so are discriminated against. They are usually poorly educated, have little access to health services and live in 'line-rooms' where a family is allocated one room in a long building.

What's more, the Hindu and Tamil cultures mean that the women are not given their own pay; it is given to either their husband or father.  The men, who work on the tea plantations, cut down trees or operate machinery. They get paid more than the women, 155 rupees (82p) a day and finish work at 1.30pm, whilst the women have to pick until 5pm. It is not uncommon for some men to spend both wages on drinking the afternoon away.

With the world's aid focus being on the tsunami survivors, it is easy to feel that the tea pickers have been forgotten. But several aid agencies are working to try and improve their lives.

In the Nuwara Eliya district of Sri Lanka, World Vision has set up a women's co-operative, where each member has to bring an item a week from home, such as soap or sugar that can be sold. Money is then put in a common fund and they can apply for a loan, for things such as medical fees or a child's education.

Christian Aid is working with The Institute of Social Development to enable women tea pickers to demand such basic human rights as fair pay. They also work closely with the trades' unions on the estates to promote women's membership and leadership of unions.

Aid workers say that progress on the estates is very slow, in fact, they believe it could take up to ten years for women to start receiving their own pay.

Tea is one of my favourite drinks but I have to admit I now feel slightly guilty every time I have a cup because I know the truth behind its production. I see in my mind the image of a very thin elderly women, a face so lined and wrinkled, in a dirty white top and grey skirt, hunched right over with a huge sack on her back, very very slowly climbing the mountain side in the pouring rain, to get her tea weighed.

These women deserve more out of life. From now on, I've just got no choice, when I drink a cuppa, it's going to have to be fairly traded. After, all everyone, wherever they live all women deserve a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.

last updated: 20/09/05
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