Sri Lanka’s tea pickers toil on amid lockdown

Sri Lankan police have enforced a strict lockdown since March, however, there is an exception to the rule. Tea and plantation workers have been permitted to work in any district, threatening the lives of the impoverished in these sectors. Tea plantation workers have been forced to buy or make their own masks but for many living in poverty, this is a cruel joke.

The tea sector has been riddled with exploitation and hazards throughout its history. The plantation system, formed by the colonialist British empire in the 1820s, uprooted its 840, 000-strong workforce from Tamil Nadu, India. These workers only gained citizenship in 2003 as they were not considered “Sri Lankan” despite living for generations in the hill country.

Coronavirus health measures have little practical use in estates where there are little to no facilities to wash hands with soaps and masks are not issued. Where companies provide a cloth mask, the cost is deducted from wages – reducing the unfair wage they earn (£0.11 a day) even more. Trade Unions have observed women constantly touching their faces to deal with the heat and sweat giving rise to concern that without awareness, plantations can be a hotspot for the spread of coronavirus.

Living conditions are also dire for plantation workers, where people live in overcrowded, makeshift tents and toilets are communal. Moreover, with the introduction of the curfew, partners have been returning from the cities resulting in further crowding and cross-area infection risks.

HRW fears that the country will use the pandemic to further prohibit free speech and silence minorities and the disadvantaged, just as India is doing in Kashmir and New Delhi. The curfew also means that staple foods such as rice and lentils are a scarcity and women are finding it more difficult than ever to provide for their families.