Less well known is the history of Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, dating back over 150 years, which many regard as almost synonymous with colonial rule. Tamils of South Indian origin still make up a large proportion of Sri Lanka’s tea plantation workers. Their ancestors were brought to work in the sector primarily through a brutal historic system known as “bonded labour”. The consequences of this system are still felt, as many members of the tea plantation community find themselves ethnically, linguistically and economically marginalised.
One of these workers was Annalechchamy, a shy and unassuming young woman. Working on a tea plantation, she thought the conditions that generations of workers had experienced before her were never going to change. Like many within the plantation community, Annalechchamy had been deprived of even basic citizenship rights until the Grant of Citizenship to Stateless Persons Act was passed in 2003. She was afraid of even talking to the estate management, let alone negotiating workers’ rights. That was about to change.
‘Including the Excluded’, an initiative that works to improve the lives of the tea plantation workers, is implemented by CARE International and funded by the EU. Annalechchamy is amongst its beneficiaries. Supported by the initiative, she has found her inner strength and confidence. With training in leadership and opportunities to participate in decision-making, Annalechchamy is now – step by step – working to overcome the parochial beliefs that discourage women from taking on positions of importance. Empowered by the project, she has become one of the first female, community-level trade union leaders. She is challenging the ways of life that had seemed set in stone.
Most importantly, she has grown to recognise that what she has to say is important and that she can influence change. Women in estates are extremely vulnerable and often face discrimination in families, communities and workplaces. Patriarchal practices confine women and men to specific roles, with women taking on less public and more subservient roles in their families and society despite their considerable contributions. Confined to the plucking of tea leaves, women like Annalechchamy were not only required to work longer hours and more days in a year than the men, they were also required to work in the open, often in difficult weather conditions. Anecdotal evidence has also indicated that gender-based violence is particularly high in the estates. However, abuse is rarely reported and social norms often excuse such behaviour. Limited understanding of recourse further prevents women from seeking help.
With Annalechchamy taking on the role of a trade union leader, the rigidly defined social roles have been challenged. She hopes that more issues pertaining to women will be discussed. Annalechchamy recounts: “I started as a volunteer, but after I received training, I am no longer scared to talk with the estate management… I speak freely!”
The estate managers have also embraced this change. Alex Samuel, then Group Manager of Carolina Estate, Watawala Plantations, said: “By being able to talk face to face in the Community Development Forums, both sides are beneficiaries. The workers understand our requirements better and can thus appreciate the position of the management on certain issues. Productivity has improved and labour issues are rare. From the workers’ perspective, they have direct access to the management and can directly explain their needs and explore ways in which management can help them.”