UN Expert Says Tea Workers Are Living In ‘Inhumane And Degrading Conditions’

Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaha Tamil workers, whose labour in tea plantations fetches precious foreign exchange to the country, are living in “inhumane and degrading” conditions, a UN expert has said.

Contemporary forms of slavery have an ethnic dimension.

In particular, Malaiyaha Tamils —who were brought from India to work in the plantation sector 200 years ago — continue to face multiple forms of discrimination based on their origin, said Tomoya Obokata, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery.

The plight of the Malaiyaha Tamil community, historically neglected and marginalised, has received relatively less international attention.

Roughly 1.5 lakh people from the community, with a population over 10 lakh, are engaged in direct labour in the estates, and most of them are women.

Their daily wage of LKR 1,000 (about ₹373) — won after sustained protests in recent years — is tied to an arduous target of 18-22 kg of plucked tea leaves every day, to be met rain or shine, while braving leeches and wasp attacks.

A prominent item in Sri Lanka’s export basket — apart from garments, rubber, and spices — tea brings roughly $1.3 billion a year into the country.

India has committed to building 14,000 houses in Sri Lanka’s hill country, but the construction is progressing at a slow pace amid private plantation companies’ apparent reluctance to part with land.