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More than 300,000 people work in Sri Lanka’s tea plantations

Tetley says it has suspended work on some central estates

The respected British newspaper, Guardian last week ran a story strongly critical of Sri Lanka’s once British-owned tea industry focusing on its poorly paid labour force and the harsh living conditions they are forced to tolerate.The report was headlined: “We give our blood so they live comfortably’: Sri Lanka’s tea pickers say they go hungry and live in squalor.” It reported that Some of the world’s leading tea manufacturers, including Tetley and Lipton, are examining working conditions on the plantations of its Sri Lankan suppliers, following a Guardian investigation.

The report quoted Tetley saying it had suspended work with some central Sri Lankan estates while it conducted its own inquiries. Ekaterra, which owns Lipton and PG Tips, said it was in contact with the Rainforest Alliance over the findings. Yorkshire Tea, another company that sources tea from the estates the Guardian visited, said it was speaking to the plantations concerned.

Two global trade-certification schemes, Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance, are also conducting inquiries after it was revealed that some workers on 10 certified estates could not afford to eat and were living in squalid conditions, Guardian said.

Some of the pickers said they had so little money that they were having to skip meals and felt forced to send their children to work, the Guardian report said.

More than 300,000 people work in Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, which are mainly in the mountainous Central Highlands. In 2022, the industry generated £1.079bn in exports.

Some of the pickers said they had so little money that they were having to skip meals and felt forced to send their children to work, the report said.It was replete with quotations from workers complaining of harsh working conditions and poor remuneration. A sample:

Workers claimed some estate supervisors have tried to underpay workers. Lakshman Devanayagie, 33, said: “Even if we pick good tea leaves, they will say it’s not good enough, and they will tip it out, or that they are going to cut our pay.

“If we give them five kilos of tea leaves, they will only pay us for two or three. When we ask them, they say, ‘we’re doing as we’re told, so why don’t you do as you’re told?’,” she said, adding that she felt suicidal at times.

Rangasamy Puwaneshkanthy lives with her husband and three children in the hills above one tea estate. She said has had to take out loans to pay for food and regularly missed meals, adding that she often chose to forgo buying sanitary towels so she could buy food for her children.

“If there’s no food at home, then I don’t take any to work. I tell them [supervisors] I’m going home for a bit and then come back, because I can’t watch other people eating,” Puwaneshkanthy said.

She said pressure to pick quickly meant that she did not have time to watch out for leeches, which are common in the damp climate. Last year, her leg became infected from one and she had to walk for an hour to see a doctor because she could not afford a rickshaw ride.

“If we stop to pick the leech off, then we’ll be one kilo down – that’s how we’re thinking when we work,” said Puwaneshkanthy.

“We don’t know what to do. We’re working on the estate, but we have no salary. What are we meant to do?”

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