Arguably Sri Lanka’s most important industry, the tea sector accounts for 19 per cent of the nation’s foreign earnings and provides direct employment to over 310,000 people, the majority of them women. However, the largely Tamil workforce is among the poorest in the country, only having gained citizenship rights in 2003. The poverty and isolation of the estate communities, as well as animosity between the largely Tamil workers and Sinhala managers, has meant that even basic forms of worker-managed dialogue are rarely practiced, to the detriment of both workers and the estates themselves.
CARE Sri Lanka’s Community Development Forums (CDFs) were designed to benefit both workers and plantations. CDFs are in effect ‘mini-parliaments’ with one CDF set up on each participating tea estate. The model opens up new channels of communication between stakeholders in the plantation sector, serving as a forum where collective decisions about community development priorities and workers’ labour conditions are negotiated and decided in a transparent way. Management, tea pluckers, unions and community leaders are all represented. CDFs also form subcommittees to identify needed changes within their communities and build linkages with local government authorities.
Workers on estates with CDFs have benefited from: improved working environment, improved access to key services such as health care and voter registration, increased ability to represent themselves democratically in and outside the workplace, and improved gender equality. Overall, an assessment showed that as a result of these changes for every dollar invested in CDFs, over 42 dollars of social value was produced.