Last year I visited a tea plantation in Sri Lanka, and saw first-hand how CARE has supported tea workers (the majority of whom are women) to improve their lives and livelihoods, and the plantation to be more profitable. Here are three things that struck me:
1. The business case: The Sri Lankan Tea industry needs more workers
Sri Lanka is the third largest producer of tea in the world, and tea accounts for around 12% of export earnings in 2016. Sri Lankan tea is a premium product as it based on hand picking tea leaves. However, working on a tea estate is not an attractive job – wages are low, it’s hard work and there are very limited prospects. So tea estates have to change or go out of business.
The plantation I visited produces 1.3m tonnes of tea each year and needs 1,000 workers to produce this. However an assistant manager told me that there are only 600 workers and it was difficult to recruit more. The average tea worker is over 40 and their children have other ambitions. The alternative is to mechanise, using clippers, which would lower the quality and therefore extract the unique selling point of Sri Lankan tea.
2. The challenge: Tea workers come from marginalised communities
The corporate tea estates use traditional plantation production methods with large scale, drawing their workforce from a community of over two million Indian origin Tamils who are among the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in the country. The majority of workers live on the estates with their families, and are dependent on their daily wages which only meet their minimum basic needs, and so other income-generating opportunities are required.
Due to engrained gender norms in Sri Lanka women, who make up the majority of tea pluckers, tend to be in lower-wage and lower-status roles than men. In spite of the long hours they work, and their higher productivity compared to men in the estate, they earn comparatively less income, and rarely rise to supervisor-level positions.
On the estate I visited tea workers told me that previously they had little access to health and education services or to important documents such as birth or marriage certificates. Tea estates are remote, and so travelling to the nearby town means the loss of a day’s wage, as well as the cost of travel, and no guarantee that they will be able to access the service when they get there.
The poverty and isolation of the estate communities, as well as ethnic divides between the workforce and managers contributed to low productivity and frequent strikes. The assistant manager described it to me as a tug of war.
3. The solution: It’s good to talk
However with help from CARE, the situation is changing. CARE has been working to promote the welfare of plantation communities since 1988. We have facilitated Community Development Forums to bring managers and workers together to talk, which has had a dramatic improvement.
The CDFs are spaces for open sharing and debate where collective decisions about community development priorities and labour conditions are negotiated and decided in a transparent way. Management, tea pluckers and workers, unions and community leaders are all represented. Importantly, women are also given an equal role to participate and hold office at the CDF, ensuring that the views of the largely female workforce are represented.
During the visit I met with both worker and management CDF members, who appeared to have a good rapport, and the tea workers were confident to share their stories and ideas.
“Earlier we were here and they were there. But now the biggest change is that we sit together and can see each other’s faces and discuss freely – we have a good relationship. Earlier we were shy and didn’t talk but we didn’t get the opportunity and we didn’t know how to communicate. But we had training and we know how – what to say – who to say it to – we are proud.” Suren, CDF Member
Photo: CDF members including tea workers and estate management in Sri Lanka
The CDF members explained that to address the lack of access to services they decided to build a community centre on the estate, funded by estate owners, with a meeting room and office space. The estate management invited health visitors, government officials and other organisations to visit the estate and use the community centre to provide services. This meant that tea workers could access vital services without having to leave the estate or lose a day’s wages.
The CDF also shared how they have been supported to form savings and loans groups, which meet in the community centre, allowing members (mainly women) to pool their savings and make loans to each other. Through the CDF they also get access to financial literacy and business development training and other life skills training supported by CARE and other NGOs. This helps them to set up small income-generating activities such as dairy, chicken rearing or vegetable growing, which also has nutritional benefits for the community. Savings group members are also one of the ways to bring women into leadership roles and build their confidence.
“We are saving in the community so we can develop other income opportunities. This is helping our children and our income. I have a cow and sell the milk. Others grow and sell vegetables such as beans, cabbage and carrots. We get an average of 15,000Rs per month in extra income.” Rita, CDF member
All of this has led to a more productive workforce: our research has shown that after establishing CDFs, estates have reported:
- a 10 to 20 per cent increase in the volume of tea plucked by their workforce;
- a reduction of 16 management hours per week spent mediating disputes;
- reduced or eliminated participation in national strikes, resulting in savings equivalent to $2,600-$13,300 per estate per day; and
- improved employee perception of economic and social well-being, among other benefits.
Overall for every dollar invested in CDFs, we have seen that tea estates gained an additional US$26.
CARE’s simple CDF model has made a huge difference on tea estates in Sri Lanka. Workers now have more control over their daily lives, in the workplace and in the wider community. For the tea industry, as an industry at risk, improving worker productivity and commitment is vital for sustainability. CARE’s facilitation of community development forums and women’s leadership has provided a productive environment to resolve the issues which otherwise threaten both the tea business and the communities. It really is good to talk.