Tea Plantation Women Workers in Sri Lanka

by Annathaie Abayasekara
Gami Seva Sevana


The plantation sector is still the largest organized sector in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka’s import-export economy, the plantations still rate as one of the highest in terms of foreign exchange earnings despite the sharp rise in the earnings of the tourism and gem industries. The plantation women workers comprise approximately 52% of the work force. They are the largest organized group of women in our land, and they have shown their militancy in the context of many strikes in the history of our country.

The story of the plantation women workers is an excellent illustration of the triple oppression of a group of women based on race, class and gender in a patriarchal society. For example, Sri Lanka is credited with having the highest literacy rate in Asia - 82%. Unfortunately, this figure is not true for the plantation sector which is said to have only a rate of about 20%. The women in the plantations take on traditional roles as women while they are still siblings; hence, they do not make it to school or university. The number of female university graduates from this sector is less than 10. The low maternal mortality figures or long-life expectancy of women in Sri Lanka does not hold true for women in this sector.

The plantation economy took root in Sri Lanka with the opening of coffee plantations in the 1820s. Coffee is a seasonal crop and needed less labor (only for harvesting the ripe fruit); but as coffee failed because of a fungus, the British established tea plantations in the 1880s.

Tea is a labor-intensive product. Women laborers were brought to Sri Lanka from India because these women were docile labor. This would maximize profit, and their presence among the male laborers would ensure the production of futare generations of workers.

These workers lived on estates which were enclaves - each with line rooms (living quarters), a dispensary, school and creche. The patriarchal society existent in India in the 1880s was brought to Sri Lanka and is found to be prevalent even today approximately 112 years later!

The enclave nature of the plantation did not permit socialization outside of the estate. In the past era, they had to carry a card, and life, in a sense, has stood still for them. The women are socialized to obey, to serve and to be the property of the male members of their family. Popular Hinduism in this sector maintains the ideology of "Kannavane Kan Kanda Deivam" ("My Husband Is the God My Eyes Have Seen"). This ideology then socialized women to be subject to males at all levels -daughter to father, sister to brother, wife to husband and mother to son in the social unit of the family and to males in the workplace.

Wages and Working Conditions

Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, women tended to accept the ideology that men must be paid more for equal work. In 1984, we welcomed equal pay for equal work. Today a worker earns a little more than Rs. 60 (US$1.30) per day. After privatization, workers in some areas only get three to four days of work. As labor laws require that workers be paid for a minimum of 25 days, the extra wage paid is set off as a loan. This is creating a system by which the worker is becoming a debtor to the present management.

The plantation sector workers are paid daily and not monthly. They officially work an eight-hour day beginning at 7:30 a.m., finishing at 4:30 p.m. when the siren sounds. Since she may have a distance of three miles to walk to her hillside of work, she will start her journey at 6:30 a.m.

Her day as a woman, however, begins between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. in order to collect water, get the morning meal ready, wash the children and prepare them for creche or school and then take them there and go to work herself. She prepares a meal of roti (bread). Then she returns to work and leaves the hillsides at 4:30 p.m. when the siren sounds, joining the long line to weigh the leaf. If she is lucky she can get home between 5:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. (she, thus, has approximately a 10-hour working day). It is after this that she prepares the evening meal of rice and curry and hopefully goes to sleep at 10:00 p.m. or 11:00 p.m.

The males are the only ones who experience some freedom to go out as their work finishes at 1:30 p.m. so they do all of the purchasing of food and clothing, including the woman’s shopping. On some estates, the man can still sign and receive the woman’s wages. A woman rarely leaves the estate as she has "no time." She may go to a wedding or funeral or a film.

The creche facilities on the estates are good and are run by trained personnel. They are sometimes not used by the plantation women, however, as they feel threatened by the presence of a creche attendant of another race and unsure of her attitude toward their children. Her assistant will be a person from the estate.

School: Students in grades one to five, by and large, study in congested classrooms which are not conducive to learning. In some areas, there are now some good schools, but there is not enough provision for their high school studies.

Health: Bowel diseases, bad sanitation, impure water, malnutrition and respiratory diseases caused by cold and damp weather conditions are prevalent as these workers work in rain and sunshine at high elevations.

Housing: There is now some improvement, but many still live in homes 8 feet by 10 feet for six to eight members or more and face the ill effects of, for example, rape, incest and domestic violence.

Trade Unions

The workers are organized into trade unions. Their membership fees are deducted by the office. Many women do not know the name of the trade union to which they belong and name it by saying it is so and so’s trade union, etc.

The work of this trade union for women does not go beyond creating a women’s committee and doing some minimal work through them. Times and days selected for trade union activity very often suit the male, rather than the female, worker. I know of a couple of trade unions which have begun to establish programs for education, income generation and confidence-building at the national level. This is good but needs more work to ensure the participation of women at the grassroots level. Women workers are members of the trade unions to which their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons belong; they do not know the pros and cons of each.

The importance of the trade unions has increased since privatization as they are now the guardians of the rights that the plantation workers have gained to date. Trade unions are participating in negotiations after privatization to ensure that no layoffs take place. The status of citizenship was offered to all workers in 1988; it has not become a reality yet, however. Red tape and reluctance presently make this pledge of the president a hollow promise. The plantation workers who do have a vote, however, constitute a good number of citizens, and their votes, which are a floating vote, can make a decisive choice. As a result, the trade unions that helped to organize the workers to seek and protect their rights have become their political leaders. Being represented in Parliament and local government brings with it strength and the bargaining power to negotiate for the workers’ rights.

Empowering Women for Change

The PLantations Women’s Group (PWG) in Hatton can trace its embryonic beginnings to 1976. It has as its goal the empowerment of plantation women for change. This movement in the tea plantations aims to address the triple oppression of plantation women based on class (workers), race (Tamil) and gender (female). The empowerment program then attempts to address their issues.

i. Working Class: These women workers comprise 52% of the largest sector organized by the trade unions, and they pay a monthly fee. The benefits that trickle down to them are minimal, however, as the issues and needs are defined by male leaders at the local, regional and national levels.

The eight-hour day they work, which, in reality, is 10 hours as highlighted earlier, has not yet been recognized as oppressive by the community at large as it is specifically experienced by women. There is no recognition that the extra time given by the women is extra time given to the community. Hence, no attempt has been made to ensure a strict eight-hour workday for female laborers.

This is primarily due to the socialization that men and women have had in traditional South Asian societies. The tea plantation which I visited seems to have stood still in time. Workers on this estate live a walking distance of about 40 minutes one way from a main road and have one bus that travels once in the morning out of the estate and once in the evening to it. Time seems to have stood still, as on this enclave, where to question the authority of management (99.9% male), husband or father could be interpreted to mean a lack of respect by the inferior member for the superior. The triangle of the hierarchy (management-administration-workers) shows that male domination is the norm in the plantation system, which clearly indicates that patriarchy is entrenched in the capitalist system.

ii. Race: The tea plantation women are mostly Tamils; they belong to a minority ethnic group. The table of statistics below will help explain the demographic composition of people in Sri Lanka.

Our history and experience show that the Tamils are subject to human rights violations. The unresolved ethnic conflict leading to the war in the North and East has had its repercussions on the tea plantation workers who live in the midst of the majority community.

The struggle for equality of status (citizen ship, education, employment) has been highlighted since 1977, leading to a civil war in the country in the last eight to nine years. In this context of racial tension in the country, the plantation women, as women of a minority group, experience many indignities. They face oppression as they are socialized to accept a lower status in the name of fate, culture and tradition. In this context, they tend to unquestioningly accept the secondary position they are delegated to as Tamils and also the lower step they are assigned within this ethnic grouping because they were born into this world as women.

In the context of the ethnic question, many of these women who have only the skill to pluck tea fine themselves as single parents, compelled to manage households when their husbands disappear or are taken in under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) as suspects with links to the Tamils in the North and East.

A Demographic Analysis: Who are the people of Sri Lanka?1

Ethnic (%)

Religious Composition (%)





Sri Lankan Tamils




Indian Tamils











0.16 %

Sectoral (%)

Sex (%-total number)



Male 51% (8,566,000)



Female 49% (8,240,000)

[1. This data is based on figures from 1981.]

The war brings with it sexual molestation, rape, prostitution and its consequences, like trauma, unwanted pregnancies, mental stress and social unacceptability.

The above factors are also influenced by the open economy and tourism. The plantations have not been untouched by these factors.

iii. Gender Issues: As commented upon earlier, the social and cultural isolation of the tea plantations into enclave type of settlements and traditional beliefs based on popular Hinduism and Christianity have kept the women suppressed and socialized into accepting their life of servitude or semi-slavery as what is natural and ordered for them by gods (fate).

This is seen markedly in the familial structure where a woman is kept under the authority of her father, brother, husband and son. In the tea estates, this oppression is manifested in the following areas:

  • She does not receive her salary. Her husband, father, brother or son sign for her and take her earnings. Very often her earnings are managed by and spent by a male relative.

  • She very rarely leaves the estate because of the pressure on her to keep the home fires going and to supplement the earned income of the family. As a result, she does not even select the clothes she wears - they are purchased for her by male relatives.

The PWG endeavors to give an awareness of the situation of women plantation workers through discussions, seminars, lectures, dramas, role plays, mimes, songs, etc. The aim is to open their eyes to see beyond their socialization, to see that women are created in the image of God and that they are as important as the males, that the two sexes are complementary. They will hopefully be empowered by this process to realize that they are persons who have dignity and worth.

Our goal is to make them aware that, as much as the women and men in the plantation are poor and exploited, that women are less better off than men. For example, when men collect the women’s wages, they spend it on themselves, consuming liquor, and women in most societies do not own land or have hereditary rights. Men and women on the plantations do not own land. Women have to leave their homes and go to their husband’s house when they are married. This puts them completely in the power of their menfolk and their families so that they have no control over their lives.

We also make them aware of their power as tea pickers. A prolonged strike by them can bring the economy to a standstill. Our health programs seek to humanize and control her role in reproduction. We emphasize the need for a healthy mother for a healthy community. In a society where people are paid daily and more workers mean more income, we speak of spacing for good health rather than birth control.

We try in our empowerment program to make it possible for the women to understand that we must move beyond sewing and cooking classes to enable them to have access to resources and rights over their bodies, land and capital. To do this, we seek to promote awareness of their position on the tea plantation as pluckers, in society as women and in the nation as an integral part of society.

(Ed. note: This story was presented at the second Grassroots Women’s Leadership Formation program, October 1992, Bangkok, Thailand.)