Tea workers: one euro a day!

On 12 May the Socialist Plantation Workers’ Union (SPWU) opened new offices in the town of Nuwara Eliya, high up in the Sri Lankan ‘hill country’.

The union is linked to the United Socialist Party (CWI Sri Lanka) and the new offices are a testimony to the growth of the party among Tamil plantation workers. The USP is the only left force growing not just among the Sinhalese majority – for example in the tsunami-hit south – but also among the Tamil-speaking Muslims of the east as well as among the hill country Tamils.

These Indian-origin Tamils, brought to Sri Lanka a century and a half ago by the British colonialists, along with the tea bushes that they tend, are in many ways the backbone of the island’s working class. They account for seven per cent of the total workforce and provide the main source of foreign exchange. But they are largely isolated from society as a whole, confined to barrack-like terraces that resemble open-air prisons.

Comrade Sinnia, a member of the USP’s Central Committee and organiser among the plantation workers, tells me that the women tea-pickers work on the slopes from 7.30 am till 4 pm when they return with the day’s pickings to the weighing station. They get a daily wage of 137 rupees (just over one euro). To earn this rate, though, the women must have a satisfactory attendance record.

The plantations were nationalised in 1970 by the coalition government of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Communist Party and the (ex-Trotskyist) Lanka Sama Samaja Party. Most have since been sold back to the private sector – mostly to Indian capitalists – under pressure from the World Bank and imperialism.

The plantation Tamils are noticeably shorter than most other Sri Lankans as a result of harsh working and living conditions that have barely changed since the time when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto. Attempts to automate the industry have failed and it therefore remains highly labour intensive. The contrast between the breathtaking beauty of the tea-covered slopes and the extreme poverty of these workers is impossible to miss. Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP topped $1,000 for the first time last year (measured by purchasing power parities), but conditions on the plantations are far below what this level might indicate. Malnutrition is rampant and access to proper health care and education is severely limited. While Sri Lanka has the highest literacy rate in South Asia at 87 per cent, fewer than 25 per cent of plantation Tamils can read and write. Less than one per cent of Sri Lanka’s university students come from the plantations.

New USP branch

The day after the SPWU offices opened, a new USP branch was founded on a plantation outside Nuwara Eliya. Six local members, plus visiting USP activists from Colombo, discussed the current political situation in the country. The meeting took place in the tiny front room of a typical plantation terrace or ’line’ where three families – thirteen people in total – share just three rooms. Sinnia, our host, and his two brothers whose families share the home, were born in this house, as were their parents and grandparents. Electric lighting was installed ten years ago, but the family do their cooking on a wood fire and the toilets for the whole block are in the yard outside.

Sinnia tells me that, barring a special occasion, only one member of his family will make the monthly trip into Nuwara Eliya – less than ten miles away – for shopping. Otherwise they never leave the plantation.

The coalition politics of the old Sri Lankan ’left’ parties – supporting in various ways governments of the capitalist class – have destroyed any basis of support for these parties among the plantation Tamils. While its work is still at an early stage, therefore, the gains the USP is making among these workers are of decisive importance in the long-run. In April the USP organised a meeting with 108 participants in Nuwara Eliya to hear Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. The SPWU is now planning a campaign to sign up another 200 members to the union in the coming months.

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June 2005