Estate Workers Quest for Equality and Dignity | Daily News

Estate Workers Quest for Equality and Dignity

Female tea pluckers make a significant contribution to country’s economy.
Female tea pluckers make a significant contribution to country’s economy.

As the Essence of man is concerned, human beings are absolutely on equality with one another. According to Buddhism, equality is not fragmentary, but complete. It is because sentient beings are deluded with perverted views that they make discriminations. In reality, the Essence of every sentient being is identical. This is the basic Principle and Fountainhead of the complete teaching of Buddhism. According to Buddhism, man is made up of five Aggregates- Form, Sensation, Conception, Volition and Consciousness. Form is a material and the other four Aggregates are the activities of the mind.

Seven decades after Independence in Sri Lanka, the predominantly Tamil speaking plantation workers are subject to unfair treatment. As we know they are the workforce who produce our national beverage, tea. The women workers on the tea estates are never appreciated for the very significant work they do. It is a physically demanding job to carry a heavy basket and work on slippery mountainsides, with the threat of leeches and snakes. There are many instances where these poor women have been fiercely stung by hornets.

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore said, “We gain freedom when we have paid the full price”. For more than 150 years, the women tea pluckers have paid their share by their dedicated labour. They certainly are not free in many spheres of life, and remain a segregated class. Various women are recognized on global days dedicated to women and human rights, but the estate women workers are forgotten, neglected and kept in a realm of servitude.

Attempts by Upcountry Tamils to register as citizens were deliberately frustrated by bureaucrats. After British rule and achieving Independence by united struggle in 1948, Sri Lanka sadly labeled the tea plantation workers as ‘temporary immigrants,’ denying them citizenship despite years of employment in vintage Ceylon. Their hard work built this nation’s economy. Only in the 1980s, Sri Lanka granted citizenship rights to the descendants of Indian Tamil’ indentured workers. Martin Luther King once said “All labour that uplifts humanity, has dignity and importance.” These hardworking women are directly contributing to the Sri Lankan economy, and yet live in poor and unsafe working conditions. Why is there so much prejudice against this work force?

Thousands of plantation women work hard and retire with no savings. They only collect varicose veins on their legs from years of standing and spine-related pains by carrying the heavy basket of Ceylon Tea. They live with the burden of broken dreams. It is disdainful that these estate workers have to still campaign for a wage increase. Their rights and welfare as workers is as important as Sri Lankan tea exports. Ceylon’s tea must not only reflect good taste but goodness to its plantation workers. Today’s tourists are well educated on human rights and respect, and will expect better living conditions on the estates they visit, as part of their tour.

Everybody knows these robust women are the backbone of the nation’s tea industry which brings in millions of revenue in addition to enhancing tourism. Ceylon Tea is a world respected brand. The estate labour force has worked with tremendous output for decades. What has their community received in return? Karl Marx once said, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, toil, slavery, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.” Perhaps his words resonate with a deafening silence in these mist laden hills.

For more than 150 years the estate workers lifestyle is mundane and manifests affliction. They begin their day waking up by 4 am. They do not have hot water taps or cozy homes with carpets. They have to make their frugal breakfast which is very often rotti. In addition, they have to attend to their school going children, like any responsible mother. These children have to walk long distances to school - sunshine or rain. These innocent children have never seen any kind of fast food, or gone on holidays to enjoy within their own country. In the past, we have seen all sorts of claims by plantation executives that other methods to collect and carry the tender green tea leaves or ‘kolundu’ will be introduced. This remains an illusion. The same method of 150 years continues, and remains a form of cruel servitude.

In philosophy, the highly evolved Shakta tradition equates Shiva with Parvati, in her form as Shakti. Shiva is powerless without Shakti. The two are complimentary. In mythology, the three chief deities of Hinduism are invariably depicted with their consorts: Brahma with Saraswati, Vishnu with Lakshmi, and Shiva with Parvati. So Hinduism, the majority religion on the tea estates duly teaches equality. In this modern world, it’s sad to see a productive labour force being marginalized. When will they get a decent livable wage, which is their right? When will these people feel they are part of our Sri Lankan identity in every sense? The estate women have dreams and aspirations for their children. The estate workers deserve a better life, with dignity and equality. It is then that Ceylon tea will reach greater heights.



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