Estate Life

Tea - a hot cup of colonialism

Colonialism. Everyone’s talking about it. It seems to seep into everything. Even your tea.

In the early 1800s, the British realised they needed a large workforce to grow tea in Sri Lanka, so began a recruitment drive that preyed upon low caste Indians from mainly Tamil speaking areas (Indian Tamils) with the promise of work, better living conditions and a much better quality of life for them and their families.

The Indian Tamils targeted by the British were struggling with their life in India. Facing potential starvation from large-scale recurring famines, discrimination because of their low-caste status and constant poverty, moving to Sri Lanka to work on the tea plantations seemed like a lifeline to a better and brighter future. Paying the exorbitant recruitment costs and putting this crippling debt to the back of their minds, they arrived on Sri Lankan shores brimming with excitement about their new life.

Excitement quickly turned to despair. The situation that faced them on the tea plantations were difficult, to say the least. Tea estates were closed communities, isolating workers and their families from the outside world. Housing built for the workers and their families were row after row of barrack-type single rooms (line rooms). Entire families had only a room no bigger than 12×12 feet to live in. With virtually no sanitation, water, medical facilities or schools, the long hours, the quotas and the harsh field officers made their work even more burdensome.

Fast forward 160 years

So, nearly 160 years on and you think things would have changed, right?


The tea estate community remains one of the most oppressed sections of the working class in Sri Lanka. Still relatively isolated, the people in these rural slums continue to endure a deliberately set-up system that enforces servitude. Most of the young people in these communities live below the poverty line and most live in families where alcoholism and domestic violence are rife, these issues being endemic on the tea estates. Education is chronically underfunded and based on a curriculum lacking relevancy to the modernising job market in Sri Lanka. Couple this with the fact that young people from the tea estates are often discriminated against when seeking employment means that they are faced with a chronic lack of career prospects outside of the tea plantations.

This information has been taken from the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies available at: and a report from the World bank group entitled “Sri Lanka,Ending poverty and promoting shared prosperity”. 2015

Education on the tea estates

“Poor outcomes in education block the ability of the estate population to participate in Sri Lankan society.” The World Bank, 2015
There is well documented evidence showing a wide gap in the education provided by government schools on tea estates compared with that in schools in rural and urban areas.

Education on the tea estates is characterised by its lack of resources, its lack of qualified teachers and poor teaching facilities. The subjects crucial for employment in a nation developing as rapidly as Sri Lanka – English and IT – are taught by teachers without the expertise or qualifications, leaving youth on the estates entirely unprepared for professional work away from the tea estates. In addition to this, the scale of poverty leads to high dropout rates; in a region where 80% of the students we support live on less than 1 USD per day, many must trade in their education to support their families.

Providing quality education is difficult. The remote locations of the tea estates mean that many qualified teachers are reluctant to move into these areas. The lack of qualified teachers, results in a lack of relevant qualifications to move into better paid employment, so a career outside of the tea plantations is difficult, if not, impossible.

Both parents and children are acutely aware of this and many drop out of education as a result. The World Bank (2015) reported that only 53–63% of children completed their primary school education, which is significantly lower compared to Sri Lanka as a whole, which stands at 82–86%.

Only 20% of the population of the tea estates has secondary education and 2% have post-secondary education compared to the national average of 52% and 21% respectively. The proportion of tea estate children completing O-levels stands at around 9%. However, the proportion of the estate-sector working-age population with at least 2 A-levels remains low at 3%, although improved from 1% in 2003.

English education is absolutely vital for a chance of a progressive career. An O-level C grade pass is crucial for office/retail/hospitality based employment. However, qualified English teachers are extremely rare in tea estate schools. Many teaching English can’t speak it themselves and leave it to the students to learn by themselves.

It is also well documented that teachers do not teach the full curriculum, instead finishing it off through private classes, which tea estate children cannot afford.

This overall lack of quality education for children on the tea estates blocks their ability to rise above the poverty they come from. As a result, they remain unemployed, or they become tea pickers themselves, or leave for manual/domestic work in the larger cities such as Colombo or Kandy, working for a similar wage but terribly abused because of the communities they come from. Many will also take on crippling debt and travel to the Middle East, taking exploitative and dangerous work as domestic servants or labourers.

This information has been taken from a report from the World bank group entitled “Sri Lanka, Ending poverty and promoting shared prosperity”. 2015

Living conditions

“Sadly between 1980 and 2014, only 31,000 houses have been constructed on tea and rubber plantations. This is no more than 912 houses each year and nowhere near the number that is needed to replace housing that is not fit to live in. At the current rate of building new houses, it would take a further 175 years to ensure that the existing number of households (that is, excluding their natural increase) will benefit from the housing program.”

Study on Housing Rights of the Plantation Community and Gain the Ownership of Houses, Institute of Social Development, 2015

There is a stark contrast in living conditions on tea estates compared to the rest of the country. Many of the basic facilities that we take for granted are either of poor quality or missing altogether. Analysis from the World Bank Group, 2015 shows that in comparison to the rural and urban areas of Sri Lanka, people living on the tea estates have significantly poorer living standards. From drinking water through to sanitary facilities and electricity within their households, people living within the tea estates are less likely to have these basic facilities.

The differences are particularly large for the availability of drinking water; only 68.1% of households in the estates have drinking water available inside their premises, compared to 77.3% of households in rural areas.

Similarly, less than one-third of estate households have a toilet available in their unit (a unit comprising of a group of line rooms with different families living in them), compared to 43% of households in rural areas.

It has been argued that the lack of toilets and running water provides a further problem for women – mothers and daughters need to wake up early in the morning and go to bushes for bathing and other needs, which exposes them to all kinds of threats, including unwanted sexual attention.
Entire families continue to live line rooms – barrack-style single rooms that are roughly 12 by 12 feet and described as crowded, damp, smoky and dark with leaking roofs and inadequate light and ventilation.

Housing, education, healthcare and childcare are often provided as non-monetary “welfare packages” to tea estate workers. However, it is well documented that this creates a total dependency of workers on the management for all aspects of their lives with little means of escape.

This information has been taken from a report from the World bank group entitled “Sri Lanka, Ending poverty and promoting shared prosperity”. 2015

Tea Leaf Trust - a way forward

By observing the many crosscutting issues affecting the development of the estates and the people who live on them, it became apparent to the Tea Leaf Trust board members that the focus of our work had to be on more than just formal education. Although our projects would work to enhance the future prospects of youth through a focus on employability skills and English, goals were also developed to focus on the bottom-up transformation of these exploited communities through engaging their young people, who represent a key generation following the end of the 25-year civil war, as well as the future of Sri Lanka. Tea Leaf Trust had to develop methods of empowerment and a desire for growth among these young people to become positive and engaged ‘change agents’ within their communities.



  • 92% of the students live on less than two dollars a day
  • The daily wage for a tea picker is £3
  • Indian-Tamils living on the plantations have the highest rate of poverty of 11.4% in comparison to the national average of 8.9%
  • 63% of the population live in line rooms, which offer very little privacy, poor ventilation and often poor hygiene


  • Only 20% of the population of the tea estates has secondary education and 2% have post-secondary education compared to the national average of 52% and 21% respectively


  • One in three infants are born underweight on tea estates
  •  41% of children are stunted and underweight
  • 75% of men have alcohol addiction issues and addiction to alcohol is seen as a primary cause of poverty


  • 83% of tea estate women suffered from domestic violence, 20% of which was sexual violence
  •  Many women are subjected to compulsory family planning which violates a woman’s reproductive rights
  • Women face a double burden as income earners and caretakers
  • Women constitute for the majority of the union members on plantations, but less than 1% of the decision-making level positions are held by women
  • 90% of women in Sri Lanka report sexual harassment on public transportation

To find out more about our projects click the ‘What We Do’ tab

Information for ‘The issues – a snap shot’ was taken from a variety of sources:

  • Tea Leaf Vision Household Survey 2017.
  • The Price of Tea (2012) Colombo: The Sri Lanka Campaign, pp.1-12.
  • Chandrabose, A. and Sivapragasam, P. (2011). The Red Colour of Tea Kandy: Human Development Organization, p.23-29.
  • Sri Lanka. Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) and Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition (MOH) (2009) Sri Lanka Demographic and Health Survey 2006/07 Colombo, Sri Lanka: DCS and MOH. Available at:
  • Moving Out of Poverty in the Estate Sector in Sri Lanka. (2005). Colombo: Centre for Poverty Analysis, p.1-116.
  • University of Colombo (2008) Women’s Reproductive Issues: Estate Sector in Sri Lanka. University of Colombo: Colombo.
  • Chandrabose, A. and Sivapragasam, P. (2011). The Red Colour of Tea Kandy: Human Development Organization, p.23-29.
  • Ilyas, A. (2014). Estate Tamils of Sri Lanka a socio economic review. International Journal of Sociology and Anthropology, 6(6), pp.184-191.
  •  Sexual Harassment on Public Buses and Trains in Sri Lanka (2017) Population Matters Colombo: United Nations Population Fund Sri Lanka.

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