How tea communities in Sri Lanka collaborate to achieve social and business benefits

by 20th Dec 2018
Tea worker, Sri Lanka Tea worker, Sri Lanka

In a politically volatile environment, CARE is working to implement Community Development Forums (CDF) in tea estates in Sri Lanka. The CDFs are delivered in partnership with the tea workers, estate management and trade union representatives and aim to break-down barriers to show how tea communities can collaborate to achieve social and business benefits. In December 2018 I travelled to Bandarawella to understand more about how CARE’s partnership with the tea company, Twinings is supporting the establishment of CDFs to deliver transformational change.

A brief history of tea in Sri Lanka

Over 150 years ago, English colonialists brought indentured labour from India to work on Sri Lanka’s tea estates and to this day, the descendants of these Tamil workers remain isolated from Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese population, with little awareness of their rights and lacking the skills and spaces to collaborate with management to negotiate or address their needs.

Women are particularly disadvantaged; generations of deeply ingrained gender inequality mean that the female workers on tea estates face huge social challenges and lack the means to successfully raise these. CARE recognised that in this complex environment we have the opportunity to address two significant issues: 

  1. Women working on Sri Lanka’s tea estates have substantial unmet social needs
  2. Tea estates are missing out on significant business value due to worker unrest, absenteeism and staff turnover as a result of these unmet needs (it is estimated that up-to 16 management working hours per work can be saved through CDF implementation as a result of reduced strikes and worker unrest while for every £1 invested in CDFs, up-to £26 returns to the estate in productivity).

CARE’s CDF approach therefore trains workers and management directly in the skills they need to understand and discuss the challenges they face while simultaneously providing them with the space in which to resolve these issues together. A particular focus is given to gender equality throughout the training and CDF constitution.

Community Development Forums in action

I travelled to Bandarawellla to witness the Community Development Forum model in action and to hear how, through partnership with CARE and our local affiliate Chrysalis, tea estates were already seeing social and business benefits.

The first Community Development Forum meeting I attended at Nayabedde Estate included the estate manager and I was blown away by the confidence of the CDF’s Vice President and Secretary – two female tea workers – who sat at the head of the meeting alongside the estate manager and skillfully chaired and facilitated an energetic session in which members raised needs from women’s menstrual health to local law enforcement. The estate manager spoke with passion about how the CDF has facilitated a sea-change in the confidence of his female staff and helped to uncover previously unknown potential within the women workers.

I was also lucky enough to participate in the Uva Highlands Estate CDF meeting where women and men workers, trade union representatives and management staff offered endless examples and stories of change from within their community.

One female worker told of how her husband used to be violent and that she often faced conflict within her home. As part of the CDF process she learned new conflict negotiation skills and grew in the confidence she needed to approach her husband on equal footing and as a result of the change in her, she’s influenced a change in her husband and they now live harmoniously.

Another male management team member told of his new appreciation for the amount of work that his wife does about the house – as well as in the tea fields – and told of how he now no longer expects her to shoulder the childcare alone and that they look after their children together.

These small stories of change multiply to a cultural shift within a community which has been consistently marginalised for hundreds of years, with women experiencing a disproportionate amount of this disadvantage. Although the CDFs I visited are all still in their nascent stages, the passion and pride among workers and management over owning the opportunity to make positive change within their own lives was palpable. Anecdotally, management staff reported that productivity is already on the increase and attribute this to the work of the CDF.

By focusing on breaking down barriers and empowering the entire tea community, CARE is working innovatively with business as well as community members to generate long-lasting transformational change for social and business benefit. As one CDF member expressed it; “We have realised that we are like the five fingers on your hand; although we are all different, together we work as one”.

CARE is working in partnership with Twinings to implement CDFs throughout their tea sourcing communities in Sri Lanka. We are expanding our partnership to Malawi and will be beginning our work to implement CDFs there in 2019. For any further information about partnering with CARE or to discuss how we can support your business to unlock potential in your tea supply chain please contact Verity O’Shaughnessy. 

Verity O'Shaughnessy

I am a Partnerships Manager in the Private Sector Engagement team. I oversee the team’s portfolio of partnerships with the private sector with a focus on women’s economic empowerment and humanitarian emergencies. I support the team to work with our private sector partners to achieve income objectives for CARE, multiply impact for communities living in poverty and influence business practices for greater social impact. I also directly manage strategic partnerships with Diageo, Twinings and Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG). I specialise in women’s economic empowerment throughout the value chain from smallholder farmers to retailers and customers, in particular through managing CARE’s partnerships with Diageo and Twinings. Within the IHG partnership, I focus on developing a strategic approach with IHG to the whole disaster relief cycle including response, recovery and preparedness.

I joined CARE in 2015 from the Fairtrade Foundation where I specialised in developing markets for fairtrade products grown by smallholder farmers and workers in coffee, tea, sugar and cocoa value chains. I have a BA in Development Studies from the University of Sussex, which is where my passion for working with the private sector to achieve development impact sprung from!

One good thing I've watched

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is a powerful punch of the realities of being somebody that exists in society’s margins and an account of why this means Hannah is leaving comedy. Hannah shares her personal experiences of the abuse and discrimination she has endured for being seen as ‘other’ and the cultural norms that have enabled it. A heart-breaking (and at points hilarious) call to recognise “diversity is strength”.


Twitter: @VOShaughnessy