The Issues

When we started Tea Leaf Trust, our focus was on improving education and employment opportunities, so that the children of this community had a choice about how to support themselves and their families.

However, 8 years on we are acutely aware that not only does the lack of quality education keep these young people down, but their living conditions, health issues, their emotional states as a result of gender inequality, substance abuse and poverty, all feed into their ability to feel that they are valued members of Sri Lankan society with much to contribute.

Here is a little overview of issues surrounding education and employment. Over the coming months we will enhance this section with the most up-to-date information on the social raft of issues that play a strong role in keeping these communities despondent, dependent and down.

An overview

Young people from the tea estates lack opportunities, particularly around education and employment.

Private tea companies have established systems that ignore basic human rights and take advantage of an intrinsic lack of education to cultivate a dependent workforce. This has resulted in complex multi-layered social problems including high rates of alcoholism and domestic violence.

With a lack of both formal and informal support systems for youth, the incidence of deliberate self-harm and suicide is high.

Young people from the estates are often discriminated against when seeking employment as they are seen as inferior and incapable.

Poverty causes estate youth to drop out of school in order to support family incomes. Tea pickers are expected to pick 18 kilos of tea leaves a day, an impossible task, to earn just Rs 600 /- (£3) at best, often this is cut by 50%.

Young adults therefore remain trapped within the tea estate system, or take exploitative and dangerous work as domestic servants or manual labourers in urban centres.

The tea picking community is one of the most oppressed sections of the working class in Sri Lanka. The poor state of public education on the tea plantations is but one aspect of the terrible social conditions they face.

There is a huge gap between the education in government schools on tea estates vs the education in rural and urban areas.

Providing quality education is difficult. The remote locations of the tea estates means that many qualified teachers are reluctant to move into these areas and this is a huge problem for the young people living there. Without qualified teachers, the process of getting a good educaction to be able to pass exams and get work away from the tea estates if difficult, if not, impossible.

Both parents and children are aware of this and many drop out of school as a result. Only 53-63% of children completed their primary school education, which is significantly lower when compared to Sri Lanka as a whole, which stands at 82-86%.

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 to be able to get salaried employment and the chance of a progressive career. A C grade pass at O-Level 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 try and do it on their own.

It is also well documented that teachers do not teach the full curriculum, instead finishing them off through private classes, which tea estate kids 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 and as a result, are unemployed, or they become tea pickers themselves, or leave for manual/domestic work in the larger cities, working for a similar wage and taken advantage of or terribly abused because of the communities they come from”.

The World Bank states “Poor outcomes in education block the ability of the estate population to participate in Sri Lankan society.”

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

The living conditions on tea estate communities are in stark contrast to the rest of the country. Many of the basic facilities that we take for granted are either of poor quality or missing altogether. As these facilities form part of a basic non-monetary welfare package for workers and their families, it fosters dependency on the plantation with little means of escape.

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 43.2& 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.

Often, entire families live in so- called line rooms – barrack- type single rooms that are roughly 12 by 10 feet and described as crowded, damp, smoky and dark with leaking roofs and inadequate light and ventilation.

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

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

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