Sri Lanka’s tea industry faces scrutiny over working conditions amid allegations of exploitation

Photo: Elina Sazonova / Pexels

Sapan News While the world rallies for fair pay and hours, workers on Sri Lanka’s famed tea plantations struggle to afford food, living in squalid and inhumane conditions, a Guardian investigation has revealed.

Tea pickers have claimed that they are working in hostile conditions with exposure to diseases and insects, are subjected to verbal abuse, underpaid and often not even compensation fairly for the work they do.

Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance, two trade-certification schemes, and Tetley, Lipton and other leading tea manufacturers are also conducting inquiries into working conditions and the certified estates. The tea estates are run by companies that lease land from the government, and most workers are descendants of indentured labourers from southern India. They have limited job options and rely on the estates for their livelihoods.

Lalith Obeyesekere, secretary general of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, stated that the claims of excessive salary deductions are “unsubstantiated”. He highlighted benefits such as paid holidays, maternity leave, food allowances and free maternal and childcare provided to workers. However, a Member of Parliament from the National Union of Workers, Palani Digambaram, said people were working as “slaves, without proper food or salaries”.

The UN World Food Programme estimated that 44% of families in tea estate areas were food insecure. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka, including a ban on chemical fertilizers and a depreciating currency, has exacerbated the difficulties faced by tea pickers, forcing them to skip meals and send their children to work.

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