Tea Plantation Workers in Sri LankaSri Lanka is one of the largest tea-producing countries globally and is home to many tea plantation workers. Sri Lanka is known for its Ceylon Tea, which is “acclaimed as the best tea in the world.” However, the process of tea cultivation is arduous and time staking, requiring meticulous care. Tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka put hours of hard work into the job. However, workers, including child workers, are often exploited and unfairly compensated. Organizations are committed to fighting for the rights and protection of tea plantation workers in countries like Sri Lanka.

History of Tea Plantations

Tea plantations, also known as tea estates, came about in the 19th century. The British Empire brought people from Southern India to work on the tea plantations. Most of these workers were from Tamil Nadu. Even though the British Empire abolished slavery, these Tamil tea plantation workers were certainly subject to conditions of slavery. The workers did not receive compensation and endured harsh working conditions “with long hours and heavy quotas.” Furthermore, the “workers lived in crowded shacks, without sanitation, running water, medical facilities or schools for their children.”

After British rule and achieving independence in 1948, Sri Lanka labeled the tea plantation workers as “temporary immigrants,” outrightly denying them citizenship despite years of employment in the country. Only about 30 years later, in the 1980s, Sri Lanka granted citizenship rights to the “descendants of Indian Tamil indentured servants.” To this day, many Tamils still work on tea plantations. While they gained some rights as Sri Lankan citizens, workers, including children, continue to face exploitative conditions.

Present Day Exploitation

Even though the tea industry is one of the foundations of Sri Lanka’s economy, tea plantation workers often experience exploitation. Laborers often walk barefoot through the hills of the tea estates and pick tea leaves for hours. To earn the daily wage, workers have to pluck a minimum amount of tea leaves. Up until this year, to receive the daily wage of 700 Sri Lankan rupees (LKR) (about $4.15) a plantation worker needed to gather at least 40 pounds of tea leaves.

Since around 2016, “tea plantation trade unions” have demanded a raise in the daily wage to 1,000 LKR. The protests finally paid off in January 2021. The Cabinet of Ministers amended the Wages Board Regulations, implementing an increase of the daily tea worker wage to a minimum of 1,000 LKR. Despite this wage increase, most tea workers still struggle to meet their basic needs. Furthermore, the workers do not receive sick leave, and since “no work means no pay,” workers cannot afford to take a day off.

Along with inadequate compensation, children also experience exploitation within the tea industry. Due to poverty, many Sri Lankan children drop out of school to earn an income to support their families. While the minimum legal working age at Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs)  is 16 years old, one study found that 73% of Sri Lankan children were engaged in employment before the age of 12. Long working hours and strenuous labor adversely impact children. Furthermore, child labor means education is not a priority, perpetuating the cycle of poverty even further.

Ethical Practices

While Sri Lankan tea plantation workers continue to battle unjust treatment, organizations aim to fight for tea plantation workers’ rights. In 2018, the Mother and Child-Friendly Tea Plantations project, funded by Save the Children Hong Kong, launched the Child Protection Policy. In partnership with Kelani Valley Plantations and Talawakelle Tea Estates, the policy “is a voluntary undertaking through which participating tea companies” promise to protect children living in tea estates from harm and exploitation.

Another organization dedicated to tea workers’ rights is the Ethical Tea Partnership. The Ethical Tea Partnership works “with tea companies, development organizations and governments to improve the lives of tea workers.” The organization works in tea-producing regions in Africa and Asia. Between 2016 and 2020, the organization’s efforts benefited more than one million tea workers across the world. Its Women of Tea program in Sri Lanka runs until the close of 2021, aiming to improve “the health and nutrition” of Sri Lankan tea plantation workers. The initiative also aims to improve “hygiene and sanitation practices and financial management strategies.”

The Way Forward

Although there is still room for progress, organizations have achieved significant success in improving the lives of tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka. With further efforts to uplift and empower tea workers, there is hope for tea plantation workers to live a life outside of poverty.

-Karuna Lakhiani
Photo: Flickr

tea farmers in IndiaWhile many brew tea unaware of the extensive work that goes into a cup, more than two million people in India dedicate their lives to the tea industry. Many tea farmers live in impoverished circumstances with limited access to healthcare, education and nutrition. UNICEF and the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) have teamed up to empower tea farmers in India despite setbacks caused by COVID-19.

Poor Quality of Life on India’s Tea Farms

Assam, located in Northeastern India, is responsible for most of India’s tea production, boasting around 800 tea estates. The inhabitants of these estates, mostly women and children, make up 20% of the region’s population and face several systemic issues. Furthermore, nearly one-third of Assam’s population lives in poverty. Children face even more risks, with 43% of girls marrying before age 18 and a little more than half of the youth enrolled in secondary school.

Improving Living Conditions on Tea Farms

With the help of UNICEF, the Ethical Tea Partnership, a nonprofit aiming to improve both quality of life in tea communities and tea sustainability, implemented the Improving Lives Program in 2014. The program works to improve health, hygiene, education and overall quality of life on 205 tea estates in Assam, India. For example, the program has funded and created Girls and Boys Groups and Child Protection Committees to combat child exploitation and has also built sanitation facilities.

In the first five years that UNICEF and ETP worked together, the organizations provided 35,000 girls in Assam with tools and education to prevent abuse and exploitation. The program has also trained more than 1,000 social workers and police to better facilitate trust between agencies and locals in regard to child protection.

In 2018, the Improving Lives Program expanded to cover education, sanitation, food, water, child care and overall health in a quarter of the region’s tea estates, making it the largest program in Assam working to better living conditions.

COVID-19 Challenges

Like the rest of the world, the Improving Lives Program had to adapt amid COVID-19. The ETP complied with local lockdown restrictions while also ensuring the well-being of everyone involved. The Indian government provided free COVID-19 testing sites, quarantine centers and treatment facilities. Meanwhile, UNICEF and ETP worked to fight COVID-19 by providing almost 5,000 portable handwashing stations across the 205 tea estates.

While most of the globe implemented online learning, limited access to technology made this impossible for many children on Assam’s tea estates. Instead, the Improving Lives Program gave “take-home learning materials” to about 20,000 children. Those who lacked access to smartphones used TV, local radio and the knowledge and utilities of their neighbors, making education a community effort.

New Mental Health Services

With new COVID-19 protocols in place, the Improving Lives Program can continue to fight for better conditions on India’s tea farms. A positive result of its pandemic-era adaptations is a new mental health support network. The program has trained 3,375 child protection officers thus far to provide psychological and social support to local children, offering relief from immediate mental health struggles as well as better opportunities for the future.

The ETP explains that through partnership, the organization is “one crucial step closer to realizing the ambition that children, young people and women living in tea estates in Assam can survive, thrive and fulfill their full potential.”

Caroline Bersch
Photo: Pixabay

Tea Farming in Sri LankaSri Lanka is a small island off the southeastern coast of India. The country is home to around 22 million people and to a long and vibrant history. Sri Lanka has gone from an early Buddhist settlement to a colony under the control of major European powers to, finally, its own independent republic in 1972. Throughout its secular history, tea farming in Sri Lanka has remained a constant activity and has played a massive role in the development of culture on the island.

Sri Lankan tea gained global prevalence after British colonial rulers transformed tea agriculture into a plantation-style economic powerhouse. With the economic success brought on by the explosion of tea farming in the country, the British began pushing peasants and subsistence farmers into producing tea to capitalize on the global interest in the beverage.

Tea Farming in Modern Sri Lanka

Plantation-style agriculture still makes up a notable volume of Sri Lanka’s economy, and tea is the “preeminent crop of the plantation sector” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The global demand for tea has not diminished in modern times and seemingly neither has Sri Lanka’s role in providing it. The country exports hundreds of millions of kilograms of tea every year. For example, from January 2020 to May 2020 Sri Lanka exported over 100 million kilograms of tea to its trading partners.

Therefore, much of the country’s agricultural workforce is devoted to tea farming. More specifically, two million Sri Lankan farmers rely on tea farming and tea production to provide for their families and households. With tea ingrained in so much of Sri Lanka’s culture and economy, modern solutions need to be embraced to soothe the working conditions of the many poor farmers who work to meet the global demand for tea.

How Microsoft is Improving Tea Farming in Sri Lanka

To do so, Sri Lanka has turned to technology and confided in companies to assist the government in finding these solutions. For Sri Lanka specifically, Microsoft has been a superb partner in this goal.

One broad way Microsoft has helped is via a survey conducted with local business leaders to determine if they have an interest in integrating artificial intelligence (or “AI”) as a business solution. The survey discovered that 80% of those business leaders surveyed found AI to be essential to maintain their business’s competitiveness. Acknowledging this, Microsoft is investing millions of dollars into enhancing tech skills for businesses in Sri Lanka, as well as starting programs and providing hardware to assist tech startups rising in the nation.

The implications of this initiative are massive. Considering the vital status of tea farming to Sri Lanka’s culture and economy, Microsoft’s assistance in pushing more technology into businesses can lead to more efficient farming. As a result, there will be more valuable data available to increase crop yields and more companies will engage in tea farming as their enterprise of choice. The introduction of these tools can also lead to an improvement in the lives of millions of tea farmers in Sri Lanka in both safety and economic terms.

The Colombo Tea Auction

Such efforts have already begun to take hold in Sri Lanka. One major example of Microsoft’s valuable assistance to tea farming in Sri Lanka can be found in the Colombo Tea Auction. The Colombo Tea Auction is a weekly event that takes place in the nation’s capital involving the sale and export of tea from farmers. The event is vital to the tea farming community’s success as it is a major method for how the country’s tea is prepped and sold for export around the world.

However, the auction tends to involve a lot of close-quarters contact between attendees; a reality that has proven impossible given the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, with the help of Microsoft’s Azure team and their Azure cloud and AI products, a local tech company was able to develop an e-commerce platform that allowed sellers and buyers to trade tea from the safety of their own homes. This was developed with extreme speed, and it allowed the tea economy (and two million poor tea farmers) to avoid economic disaster and flourish amongst a dangerous pandemic.

Now that the benefits are starting to become more tangible, and economic success is within reach for Sri Lanka’s farmers, technology may become more and more prevalent in the Sri Lankan tea industry. With the success of the Colombo Tea Auction’s move to digital commerce, along with Microsoft’s continued efforts to support Sri Lanka’s growth in tech and economic fulfillment, the world may see a better-equipped, safer and more successful Sri Lanka in the near future, perhaps beginning with their high-quality tea.

– Domenic Scalora
Photo: Flickr

Renewable Energy in Kenya’s Tea LandscapesKenya is facing a massive deforestation crisis. As the world’s third-largest exporter of tea with more than 3 million people relying on the crop, the deforestation is detrimental to livelihoods and the planet. Kenyan tea landscapes rely heavily on firewood and charcoal for energy. The tea factories use copious amounts of firewood for production, however, this method exacerbates deforestation as the factories cut down millions of trees each year to keep up with demand.

Tea landscape households use firewood, charcoal and kerosene for cooking and lighting, and their use has severe health implications. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 17% of lung cancer-related deaths around the world result from high levels of exposure to carcinogens in household air pollution, with there being a higher risk for women.

The Renewable Energy Project

To alleviate these issues, the Rainforest Alliance, an intersectional nonprofit, works to protect the world’s forests and the livelihoods of farmers and forest communities. The organization’s Renewable Energy Project is working on the field to mitigate the harmful effects of deforestation while improving public health with more renewable energy in Kenya’s tea landscapes.  

The Borgen Project spoke with James Muyula, a senior associate with the Rainforest Alliance, to learn more about the Renewable Energy Project. Muyula has been involved in the project since October 2017. He works in the field to support and initiate activities geared towards the realization of the project.

“The Renewable Energy Project is catalyzing the use of efficient renewable energy technologies in Kenya’s tea landscapes at the factory and household level,” Muyula said. He told The Borgen Project that this four-year project aims to accelerate the use of sustainable biomass briquettes, renewable energy that is beneficial for environmental conservation, safer for the communities and offers local entrepreneurs more employment opportunities.

Deforestation

According to Muyula, the annual demand for firewood in Kenya exceeds 19 million cubic meters of forest cover with a projected increase to 22 million cubic meters by 2032. He also said that government development goals aim to recover the land to 10% forest cover by 2030. This is increasingly difficult as the tea factories currently rely on about 1 million cubic meters of firewood annually.

Deforestation is a key issue in Kenya. The country is currently at about 7% forest cover. “Forests are pertinent for rivers, where they flow from, and we are actually changing the ecosystems. Even the rainfall pattern is changing,” Muyula explained.

The destruction of forests severely impacts forest communities. These communities lose access to essential forest goods and services like food, water and supplies. Additionally, in 2010, deforestation accounted for 24% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The combined effects of challenging weather and deforestation on the livelihoods of farmers and local communities in Kenya’s tea landscapes pose a great threat that the reliance on heavy polluters like firewood and charcoal in households and factories exacerbates.

The Alternatives

The Rainforest Alliance, in partnership with Living Earth (EnSo Impact) and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), are intervening to lower the need for firewood and other harmful energy sources at the factory and household levels. Funded by the IKEA Foundation, the project increases biomass briquette use and brings more efficient cooking stoves along with solar technologies to the communities in the tea landscapes.

According to Muyula, there are two categories of briquettes: carbonized (smokeless) briquettes for household cooking and non-carbonized briquettes for the tea factories. These are blocks of raw materials that burn longer than firewood with significantly lower indoor air pollution. In Kenya specifically, briquettes comprise of leftover sugarcane, bagasse, rice or coffee husks, macadamia nuts and sawdust. Small machines bind and compress the briquettes. After three of four days they are dry and ready for use.

While briquettes are not a new technology, Kenya does not have a national standard for them, leaving many skeptical of their quality. Part of the initiative to expand renewable energy in Kenya’s tea landscapes is to address the quality of the briquettes while optimizing their market with the KTDA. With the Rainforest Alliance, they create long term relationships with local entrepreneurs who supply the briquettes and incentivize their use in the factories.

Briquettes Improve Livelihoods

The Rainforest Alliance helps seven Household Energy Centers (HEC) where local renewable energy entrepreneurs build their briquette enterprises. This project has created substantial employment opportunities for the HECs. With briquettes now a main source of income, Muyula mentions that they earn between $150 to $200 a month. This income gives entrepreneurs the ability to build nice houses and purchase dairy cows for additional revenue. “Those are some of the things that are visible, that the project is proud of, ” Muyula said.

Renewable energy in Kenya and the use of briquettes means many households spend less time collecting firewood and have more time to invest in their farms. Green sources of lighting, like solar panels, also contribute to improved living conditions for the tea landscape communities. One example Muyula mentioned was that school children are actually improving in their studies, no longer having to endure classrooms with kerosene for lighting fuel, which affects the eyes.

“At the Rainforest Alliance,” Muyula said, “our vision is to create a world where people and nature thrive in harmony. We are working to create deep-rooted change on some of the world’s most pressing issues, including rural poverty, climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation.”

This project aims to help over 50,000 families in Kenya’s tea landscapes by improving their quality of life, mitigating deforestation and creating healthier homes. Muyula told The Borgen Project that in the near future the Rainforest Alliance hopes to expand the work of catalyzing renewable energy in Kenya throughout Africa, bringing clean energy to every home and factory, improving public health and protecting the planet.

 – Rochelle Gluzman
Photo: Flickr