Tue, July 05, 2022


'Difficult to even have one meal': Sri Lankan tea workers struggle as crisis hits

In Sri Lanka, after a month of picking more than 18 kg (40 lb) of tea leaves each day, Arulappan Ideijody and her husband receive about 30,000 rupees. The amount is currently worth about $80 after the island nation devalued its currency. Their earnings allow the family to eat only one meal per day.

On a lush plantation in Sri Lanka, Arulappan Ideijody deftly plucks the tips of each tea bush, throwing them over her shoulder into an open basket on her back.

After a month of picking more than 18 kg (40 lb) of such tea leaves each day, she and her husband, fellow picker Michael Colin, 48, receive about 30,000 rupees, currently worth about $80 after the island nation devalued its currency.

Their earnings must support the couple's three children and her elderly mother-in-law.

“What we earn is not enough to eat, let alone for other expenses. We can only eat one meal. I get paid 900 rupees ($2.55) every day I work," she said.

Arulappan is one of the millions of Sri Lankans reeling from the island's worst economic crisis in decades. The COVID-19 pandemic severed the tourism lifeline of the Indian Ocean nation, already short of revenue in the wake of steep tax cuts by the government.

The tea industry, which supports hundreds of thousands of people, also suffered from a controversial government decision last year to ban chemical fertilisers as a health measure. First-quarter tea production fell 15% on the year to its lowest since 2009, with the Sri Lanka Tea Board saying dry weather had taken a toll on bushes that received insufficient fertiliser after the ban.

Plantation workers like Arulappan, who hail predominantly from the island's Tamil minority, are affected more than most, as they own no land to provide a cushion against soaring food prices.

The prices of staples like sugar, wheat flour and rice have gone up according to her, the result of rampant inflation after Sri Lanka was left critically short of foreign currency to buy essential supplies of food.

"It is difficult to even have one meal. I can’t say what will happen to those who work in estates,” said Arulappan from her 'line house', one of 17 single-storey units set in rows around the plantation in Bogawantalawa, a four-hour drive from capital Colombo.

Outside their home, Arulappan carefully combed the hair of a daughter departing for school.

"We have not been able to buy school books. We couldn’t put covers on books… we have to pay class fees. Things are difficult," she lamented.

The cost of the two-kilometre bus ride to the local school for the couple's two school-age children has also more than doubled in recent months, adding further pressure on expenses.

However, the couple continues to pay for private tuition for them, in the hope of a better life, with husband Michael adamant he never wants to see his kids work on a plantation.

"I think we will have to work the whole time and even at night," reflected Arulappan wistfully.

Published : May 05, 2022

By : Reuters