200 Years of Broken Promises

October 17, 2023 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

On Sunday 10th September, it was reported that a Malaiyaha Tamil plantation family were violently evicted from their single-room makeshift home, which was then destroyed by around ten men claiming to be state security officials at the Kahawatte Plantation, in the Ratnapura district.

This plantation is owned and managed by the Dilmah Group, a company which has secured premium prices for their teas as well as several awards. Sadly, the conditions in which their tea pickers live and work are far from award-winning. SLC has approached the Dilmah Group for comment; they have yet to respond.

This follows on the heels of another forced eviction at the Kahawatte Estate in Matale district in August when an estate manager ransacked a similar home. Plantation Industries Minister Dr Ramesh Pathirana said the government regretted the eviction and the manager involved was transferred, with the company promising an impartial investigation. Both of these recent incidents occurred without judicial eviction or demolition orders and in contravention of  safeguards against forced evictions afforded under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Sri Lanka is a party since 1980.

Leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), MP Mano Ganesan and Minister of Water Supply and Plantation Infrastructure Development, Jeevan Thondaman, have criticised the government for failing to protect one of the most vulnerable communities on the island.  MP Ganesan has raised concerns that these attacks on Malaiyaha Tamils working on plantations seem to be increasingly frequent and has called for a moratorium on management interference in the livelihood of plantation residents other than in matters linked directly to their employment. SLC has approached the Ministry of Tourism and Land for comment; they have yet to respond.

It is disheartening that in the year that marks 200 years since the British brought Tamils of Indian origin to Sri Lanka as indentured labourers to establish and work on plantations and the 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence, the Malaiyaha Tamils remain one the country’s economically, socially and politically marginalised groups. The persistent marginalisation and under-development experienced by this community stems from the structural discrimination inherent to Sri Lanka’s plantation economy.

While tourists are encouraged to visit the tea estates of the central hills, from Hatton to Nuwara Eliya and enjoy the misty hills and old world charm, they do not see the living conditions of the thousands of workers toiling on the land. An SLC team recently visited two tea estates in Monaragala, examples of more ‘typical’ estates rather than the sanitised versions proffered for tourist consumption. What we saw and heard was that conditions on the estates had not improved since our previous blog on inhumane and degrading working conditions in Sri Lanka or our ‘Price of Tea’ campaign more than a decade ago. Indeed, several workers we spoke to told us that their communities’ living conditions were worse now than they were 40 years ago. They particularly spoke of the violent anti-Tamil riots of Black July 1983 when Malaiyaha Tamils in Central and Uva Provinces were targeted and their homes attacked.

In January 2021, the government amended wage-board regulations to implement the demands from plantation trade unions for a minimum daily wage of 1,000SLR.  However, not all plantations have adopted this minimum wage, and many plantation managers are finding creatively cruel ways to avoid full payment even where it has been nominally implemented. The workers we met spoke of enduring leeches and snakes to pick 18kg of tea every day they are called to work, which itself was not guaranteed, to receive 1,000SLR. Up to a further 4kg is often demanded by estate middle managers as ‘commission’ from workers. Harvesting these amounts of tea is a major challenge as bushes are yet to recover from the ill-conceived fertiliser policy instituted by the government in 2021. Wages were indiscriminately deducted if they failed to meet daily targets or arrived even minutes late for work, confirming investigations by Thompson Reuters Foundation and the Guardian. Worsening these workers’ plight, most of the purported gains of securing a 1,000LKR daily wage has been decimated by the economic crisis and accompanying rampant inflation and is today worth approximately £2.48 (or $3.09/€2.93).

We found plantation workers lacked assured access to clean water or proper sanitation, and were severely malnourished and living in squalid conditions, in further violation of Sri Lanka’s ICESR commitments.  Trapped in dilapidated and overcrowded, 10- by 12-foot, barrack style, British colonial-era line houses, and isolated on estates without easily passable roads, it is unclear how the Sri Lankan and Indian governments have fulfilled their stated commitments. While this housing is free, it is tied to working on the plantation. Unlike other communities that have inheritance rights, the rights of a plantation worker to their house is contingent on continuous service of at least one member of the family, tying future generations into an endless cycle of estate work.

In June 2010, Government of India announced that it would construct 50,000 houses in Sri Lanka, extending this commitment to 60,000 in 2017. To date, the Indian Housing Project has only delivered 2,300 ‘semi-finished’ houses of its 14,000-home commitment to the plantation area Tamils. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, upon his appointment in July 2022, stated that his government would legally grant land and home ownership under a ‘Land for All’ program. However, if his past efforts are an indication, this is no guarantee.  Deeds granted between 2015 and 2019 are yet to be fully realised and the lengthy process that follows have seen few succeed to gain Land Registry confirmation.

Access to childcare facilities and education beyond primary school is severely restricted for plantation families. Children seeking secondary and further education struggle to travel from their isolated homes on the estates, meaning the drop-out rates in this community are high. It was reported in 2019 by the Sri Lanka Malaiyaha Tamilar Rights Coalition (SLMTRC), that while 86.2% and 81.4% of urban and rural communities respectively finished Grade 11, only 53.8% of estate children achieved this. Similarly, while 45.8% and 39.7% of urban and rural communities respectively completed their A levels, only 12.8% of estate children achieved this.

Most of the families and individuals SLC interviewed had fallen victim to predatory microfinance debt inflated with high interest rates. Tragically, we were told that suicides are not uncommon and agencies seemed to be disproportionately pursuing this particularly vulnerable group for employment overseas with the promise of domestic work.  Dilmah Ceylon Tea, recently reported that it is covering the recent tax rise for its workers. Even so, says its CEO, Dilhan Fernando, the “uncertainty of not knowing what tomorrow might bring” remains a powerful reason for them to emigrate. The promise of financial rewards rarely materialises and migrant workers have long been reporting labour abuses, including the unlawful seizure of passports, and verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

In the scathing report of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery of September 2022, it was recognised that the Malaiyaha Tamils faced multiple and systemic forms of discrimination on the basis of their descent, making them vulnerable to labour exploitation. The substandard living conditions and harsh working conditions represent “clear indicators of forced labour and may also amount to serfdom in some instances.”

A 15-day, 252km protest march to commemorate 200 years since the Malaiyaha Tamils perilous migration from India to plantations in Sri Lanka and rightfully demanding to be recognised as full and equal citizens of Sri Lanka, ended in Matale on 12th August. They retraced the perilous journey of their ancestors who were shipped by British colonisers from India to Mannar, then made to trek on foot to the plantations of the Central Province.  Enduring disease, wild animals, and uncleared jungles, some of these expeditions saw as many as 40% perish.

200 Years protest march, Ama Koralage, via Groundviews

The protest march was also a call to improve the living and working conditions of the Malaiyaha Tamils today. Despite years of scoring lower than any other group in the country’s human development indices, including health and nutrition indicators, infant mortality, and educational attainment rates, they have been neglected by successive governments.

SLC supports Malaiyaha Tamils’ demand for a full realisation of their rights and calls on the Sri Lankan, Indian and British governments to fulfil their obligations to this community.

The Sri Lankan government must:

In addition, the government of India must resume programs to improve the homes of the Malaiyaha Tamils, with a particular focus on road access and the construction of better quality homes, whilst ensuring inhabitants have full rights to the land on which they live. Previous programs had been abandoned due to the difficult terrain and they have absolved themselves of their commitment by making limited cash payments in place. This is simply not a long-term solution and the problem of inadequate housing continues.

Finally, the British government must extend its support to this community by buffeting local efforts to improve the lives of the Malaiyaha Tamils. As a significant importer of tea from Sri Lanka, the British government can work with producers to ensure fair business practices including calling for fair wages.

Further reading:

Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences in Sri Lanka, Tomoya Obokata, 6th July 2022.