During the beginning of May 2023, I saw flyers for and joyful posts about ‘coronation tea’, with photos of the steaming hot drink alongside snacks and sweets. It was all very British, probably seemed like good fun to those people. To me, however, tea is closely intertwined with the story of the British Empire, and the exploitation of peoples and places that comes with it. It left a bad taste in my mouth, like when you place tea leaves to steep in hot water, forget them and come back much later to find it too bitter to drink.
Tea is one of a handful of things people know about Sri Lanka, even if they know little else. This post is about the community behind ‘Ceylon Tea’ that is acknowledged the world over. The year 2023 marks 200 years since they arrived in the country, with the beginning of the British colonial plantation project. Two centuries later, this is a glimpse of their story, as the word count allows.
The plantation industry is one of the most enduring legacies of colonialism in Sri Lanka, in terms of physical landscape as well as socio-political relations. Thousands of acres of tropical rainforest in what was then called Ceylon were burned by British colonial officers to make way for mono-crop plantations – first coffee, the failure of which lead to the growth of cinchona and finally, tea. The tea is now sold and drunk all over the world, with little to no reference to the people who make it possible.
This erasure is the political and social equivalent of adding so much sugar to a cup that you can barely taste the strong, dark tea anymore.
After the abolition of slavery across the British Empire, colonial planters required labour to continue generating profits from the vast commercial estates they’d begun in the colonies. Promising material riches to Tamil people in parts of South India, they created a large migration of people across the globe, and across the narrow Palk Strait to Sri Lanka. By foot, train and boat - with many dying along the way due to illness and harsh exposure - they made a long journey to the island’s hilly estates. Four to five generations later, this community refer to themselves as ‘Malaiyaha Tamils’, the Tamil-language term for ‘Tamils of the hill-country’.
The exclusion of the Malaiyaha Tamil community continued as part of the post-colonial nation building project. They were side-lined through the Citizenship Act of 1948, which was passed by a Parliament mostly made up of elite politicians. The Act ruled out citizenship to anyone who could not prove that two generations of ancestors had lived in Sri Lanka. The governments of India and Sri Lanka also attempted mass repatriations of the community to India, a place to which subsequent generations had no connection or to which they simply did not want to return. Citizenship was extended in a piecemeal way over decades to the community remaining on the island and was completed only in 2013.
The colonial planter and plantation company has since been replaced by local ones, but elders in the Malaiyaha Tamil community often reflect on how little has changed over the course of their lifetimes.
Housing on estates is made up of what are known as line houses – essentially a collection of low rooms within a single long building. These structures were temporary housing when the first workers arrived here during the colonial era. The ‘plantation raj’ and the commercial bosses who eventually replaced them never drastically changed their living conditions. Many of the newer buildings are still constructed in this impersonal model; seeing estate housing that is an improvement from the line room is a rarity. Despite living in the same estate for generations, the community do not have legal ownership of the home or land they live on and therefore, many are aware that they can be removed from that abode should the estate management need to do so.
For a young child growing up in the estates, access to education is a challenge from very start. Schools within estates often only run up to a certain grade, with a limited range of subjects in the higher grades. The geographical location of estates, often far from the nearest town, means children must walk far distances or spend money their parents don’t really have on transport to a good school. As recently as this year, news stories emerge of how a particular student was the first from the Malaiyaha Tamil community to gain admittance to a particular university, be called to the bar, or receive a high grade in the national exams.
For those working on the estate, the embodied labour takes a physical toll on them. Injuries and illnesses are rife, and the provision of health services this far from the city or town is lacklustre at best. Like kids travelling to school, people are required to travel long distances to seek quality medical care.
The community has defined their own ways of making home in what institutions have marked as a temporary place for them. You see it in the gardens they plant around their homes, in the rituals they create for healing and blessing. When everything is geared towards their dispossession, these are small acts of resistance. And there are bigger acts as well.
The current basic daily wage for tea plantation workers is 950 to 1000 Sri Lankan rupees (£2.37 – 2.50) per day. It is difficult to compare this with wages across other industries because the relationship between the employer and employee drastically differs from the supposed ‘free labour’ of the rest; the imbalance in power on a tea plantation is even more pronounced. To this meagre amount, performance and festival bonuses can be added, but costs from management, often unexplained, can be deducted. Considering that workers are given limited days of work a month – based on when leaves are available for picking – their monthly pay is far lower than a living wage. This is an issue even more urgent with the rising cost of living brought about by the ongoing economic crisis.
Over the last few decades, this community have engaged in resistance to demand better wage policies from the state, for an amount that they feel is a living wage based on their childcare, medical and other expenses. The large industry players have fought back. The people’s demand for a living wage is met with rebuttals that the cost of production is too high and would reduce competitiveness on the global market in comparison to countries like Bangladesh or Kenya.
Central demands are the signing of the Collective Agreement, which would offer basic protections and a higher wage to workers. There is also push back against the employers increasing the daily kilogram requirement that workers must meet to be paid a full wage. Trade unions run by women – a rarity in the Sri Lankan labour rights space, but especially so in this industry – are among those at the forefront of this resistance.
Estates are not an ideal site for economic or political mobility for the community. This is most visible in the yearly reduction in the labour force within them. Malaiyaha Tamils – especially the youth – look to cities, garment factories and industrial centres for work that they feel allows them more mobility and in a more immediate sense, better wages.
These dreams to go beyond the estate have existed longer than the current downturn in the country’s economic status. Each generation is informed by seeing their elders engage in back-breaking work all their lives with little to no improvement in economic, social or political status. Young school leavers say they are encouraged to further their education or seek work anywhere but the estate because their parents want ‘a better life’ for them than they had. Where this leaves the industry in the future is still unknown, but what’s more important is what the future the Malaiyaha Tamils construct for themselves will look like.
Following a recent event marking the 200-year journey, a collective from the Malaiyaha Tamil community released a Declaration with their demands from the state at this juncture. It called for the recognition of the community’s unique identity and for affirmative action that takes the centuries of exclusion into account. A living wage, land rights and political power sharing are among the demands as well. Finally, they ask that the immense contribution the community has made to the island – in the face of marginalisation – be acknowledged. Through school education and museums, they want their history, struggles and achievements to be made known.
It's likely that tea grown in most places across the world comes to your supermarket or table with a similar trail of hardship and people’s resistance. I hope this has given you something to think about when you drink your next cup.
If you’d like to contribute towards the costs of living and education for a few Malaiyaha Tamil families and children, please email me so I can connect you with a trusted community-based organisation in Sri Lanka that is working with the people – N.DeSayrah@ids.ac.uk.
If you’re visiting Sri Lanka and would like to learn more, visit the Tea Plantation Workers Museum and Archive located in the Old Peacock Estate in Gampola.
If you’re interested in learning in depth about the community’s history, politics, identity and resistance, I’d recommend some of the following books that explore the complexity of their stories:
This is one of a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2022-2023 Spring Term.
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