LEEDS, United Kingdom — The production of tea is a dominant industry in Sri Lanka. The country produces 340 million kilograms of tea per year and the industry employs 1 million people overall. Poverty in the tea estates in Sri Lanka is very common, due to a number of factors.
Poverty in Sri Lanka
The poverty rate in Sri Lanka is at a high level, as of 2022, 25% of the country is living in poverty. The country is experiencing extreme inflation, reaching 64.3% in August 2022, making food and other necessities challenging to afford. Thus, many families are living on very little.
While poverty is high across Sri Lanka, it is significantly high in the estates. According to a 2015 report by the World Bank, more than half the population residing in these areas is living below the poverty line. The World Bank states that families living in the tea estates “remain markedly disadvantaged” in terms of nutrition, as well as finances and general living conditions.”
The reasons for the high levels of poverty in the tea estates are multitudinous and complex, including generational poverty, institutional systems in place in the industry and a lack of access to education. Further, they get a wage of 1,000 rupees a day (about £2.60/$3.25) but only if they pick at least 18 kilograms of tea a day and work for a minimum number of days a month.
The Tea Leaf Trust
The Tea Leaf Trust works to educate young people and help them financially support their families and some choose to use their training to lift them out of the tea estate. More than 2,200 young people have been through their diplomas. Through this, those students have run classes and holiday activities for almost 40,000 children and delivered structured service projects to improve the environment and lives of almost 400,000 community members.
The Borgen Project spoke with Tim Pare, who co-founded the Tea Leaf Trust with his wife Yasmene Shah in 2008. He stated that there is a harmful system in place in Sri Lanka with its origins rooted in colonialism. Pare said that there are colonial systems present in Sri Lanka, particularly in the tea estates, that were “set up by the British and maintained by Sri Lanka to ensure an independent uneducated workforce,” which even if it’s “not being deliberately maintained at the moment, it’s not being deliberately deconstructed.”
With an extensive background in charity work, ranging from social work, career guidance and pastoral support in schools, Pare told The Borgen Project that by the time he met his wife and went on their honeymoon, he was looking for “a little bit of an adventure.” Pare explains, “I was a bit tired of going on these holidays seeing all the nice stuff and being able to ignore the poverty… it was beginning to grate and make me feel quite uncomfortable.”
How It Works
The Tea Leaf Trust operates by providing young people with a free, full-time year-long diploma program. During this program, they teach English, business essentials, employability, as well as emotional resilience. Pare told The Borgen Project that emotional resilience is key to the Tea Leaf Trust’s programs due to the need for young people to thrive through the hardship of living in poverty in the tea estates. Mental health issues are very common in the tea estates; according to Pare, around 80% of men in the tea estates they work in are alcoholics and around 83% of the women suffer from domestic violence, including 20% experiencing sexual violence. Plus, when students enroll at Tea Leaf Trust, around 30% to 40% are considering or carrying out self-harm, with 20% to 25% ideating suicide.
How It Helps
The Tea Leaf Trust focuses on two main aims – to support young people to become employable and attain work off the tea estates should they wish and to equip them to be emotionally resilient, ethical leaders of change within their communities. Part of the year-long diploma that they offer to young people is that the students have lots of opportunities to develop their leadership skills and in doing so ignite their social conscience to understand that the power to change things is in their hands.
One example of this is Individual Service Projects. Taking into consideration that 98.5% of students live under the U.N. extreme poverty line, students have to identify people in the community who are living in worse conditions than they themselves, for example: widows, people with disabilities, children living in orphanages. Over six weeks, the students must design and deliver an active service to improve their chosen group’s lives, such as making repairs to community water tanks, providing food or providing families with animals. A rule for this project is that students cannot receive or borrow money.
Pare told The Borgen Project that of the last group that could do the project without COVID-19 restrictions, 82% of them were still doing their service projects six months later.
Another aspect of the Tea Leaf Trust that Pare spoke of was allowing the students to teach English to children at their government schools. After training, their diploma students, aged between 18 and 26, teach free English classes to primary-aged children in schools with a lack of qualified staff. While this greatly benefits the children learning English, it also benefits the student; by teaching other children, the students learn leadership skills, boost their confidence and emotional resilience, and gain a good reputation in their communities which strengthens their self-esteem.
Buying Direct Trade
Pare explains that one thing people can do is ensure that their buying is ethically sourced by checking if it is Direct Trade. Usually, the process of getting the tea leaves to supermarkets goes through many stages, including the plantation, an auction house, a tea company, and then to a supermarket. Each of these stages provides a cut that forces pickers at the beginning of the supply chain to produce more tea for less money. Thus, the tea estate workers get very little money from the tea-selling process. However, by buying Direct Trade, people receive tea that goes straight from the tea plantation to the retailer, eliminating additional costs from the supply chain.
Poverty in the tea estates in Sri Lanka is deeply integrated into the industry and will take a lot of work to undo. However, the Tea Leaf Trust is making steps towards ensuring that the tea estate workers gain the education that enables them to choose and control their own lives.
– Jess Wilkinson