Child labour in the tea plantations in Sri Lanka

2015-09-29 19:25:43

“Do ye hear the children weeping,
O!  my brothers the young.
Young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly;
They are weeping in the playtime
of the others.”
-  Elizabeth Barret-Browning

Children employed in the tea plantations in Sri Lanka fall into a special category of plantation labour due to certain factors, peculiar only to tea plantations. One such factor is ethnicity. Plantation labour was composed of Tamils from South India. The estates on which they worked were located in the central hill regions of Sri Lanka, but the structure of the plantation system residence within the estate, the provision of education and medical facilities, no matter how meagre, on the plantation itself, isolated them from the rest of the population. This contributed to the confirmation and continuation of their consciousness as a separate ethnic group. They were not only geographical but also economically and politically isolated. They themselves with little representation were unable to find employment outside the tea plantations.

Historical Background
To understand the subject of “child employment” on the tea planations as it exists today, we should look back into the past.

The person who started tea cultivation in Sri Lanka, and was often referred to as the “Father of the Tea Industry”, was James Taylor, born in Scotland. He came to Sri Lanka in 1852 as a pioneer planter. The large scale cultivation of tea on a plantation basis is attributed to him in 1867.

Tea plantations required a regular active work force that would work throughout the year. The highest labour requirements were in the Tea plantations. Life for the workers on these plantations had always been noted for its strict disciplinary and hierarchical structure, the repetitive nature and physical strain of the actual tasks involved, and the difficult and sub-human conditions of living. Due to these reasons the local population had been reluctant to work on the plantations on a permanent basis since they still had their own paddy fields, the managing of which took most of their time and attention. The Sinhala peasant therefore had no need to exchange such a life for the long hours of work, the low wages and cramped conditions of life on an estate. There was the additional fact, that, used as he was to the traditions of a feudal society, he would have felt that manual labour for hire involved a loss of ‘caste’. To overcome this difficulty of finding labour locally, cheap, unskilled labour was recruited from the poverty-stricken and famine-prone districts of South India, where a landless peasantry depended for its very existence on the bounty of the landlord and the vagaries of the elements, were prepared to undergo any hardship in order to keep body and soul together. These people were commonly known as “coolies.”

These “coolies” were recruited under the “Kangany system”. The planters obtained their labour from India through professional recruiters, glib-tongued men who enticed their listeners with tales of the glorious fortunes that awaited them in Sri Lanka. He was the “democratically” elected leader of the gang and of the “crimp”, who appeared in times of labour shortage. But the system that was to last till recent times was the one that was based on the communal structure of the South Indian village. The head kangany (or labour supervisor) of an estate or division of a ‘group’ was the senior member of a family or clan, and was an influential person in his village. He came with his family and his relatives and those in his village who desired to work on the estates in Sri Lanka. The whole work force was structured so that these divisions were to enhance what was seen as the “family principle”, workers at each level exercising rights on those below him, and, paying respect for those higher in the hierarchy. Such methods were said to promise the most satisfactory results as they could usually settle on the estate. The kangany guided them on their journey, negotiated their engagements and finally supervised their work on the estate. The kanganies rarely favoured the emancipation of the workers, since it was on the workers’ exploitation that they thrived.

Work Force
Ninety percent of the children presently employed on tea plantations are descendants of the Indian “coolies” who were recruited from South India, when the tea plantations were first opened out. These children are a good source of cheap docile labour. In 1981, the total resident plantation labour force numbered 922,000. The resident labour force of the estates taken over by the government plantation agencies, namely, Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation and the Janatha Estates Development Board, after nationalisation was 729,000 in 1981; 208,700 males, 220,000 females and 363,900 children. Of these children 26,300 were under the age of one , 98,600 were aged 1 to 5 years and 239,000 were aged 5 to 14 years. Children form as much as 46% of the resident population.

In order to understand the actual situation of child labour on the plantations, it is necessary to know the quality of education provided for the children; their standard of health, their living conditions, their quality of life.

Education of Children 
It is particularly unfortunate that Sri Lanka which claims to have the highest literacy and educational standards among third world countries, should be retrogressing in the case of education standards for the children on the tea plantations. The fact that only a handful of children from the plantations have ever made their way to University is a good indicator of the quality of education provided for them. It was only those who were fortunate enough to be able to escape the limitations of the estate school who achieved any success in the sphere of education. They were mainly the children of kanganies and members of subordinate staff, who had the means to attend the bigger schools in towns. Some of them were helped by scholarships, established by private bodies or occasionally by well intentioned employers. Those who were given the opportunities, strove to profit from them. 

The Socio-Economic Survey Report (1979) comments on the fact that of all the ethnic groups, the Indian Tamils, the majority of whom are plantation workers, recorded the worst education profile. As many as 45% of the Tamils were found to have no schooling, and only 7.4% of them had proceeded beyond primary education. The highest percentage of illiteracy was in the female sector, 56.8% of the girls had no schooling, compared to 26.8% of the boys. In terms of passing ‘O’ Levels, 1.9% of the boys had passed, compared to 0.6% of the girls. Only 0.1% of the boys passed A’ Levels and over; there were no girls in this category.

Some recent data is available for 436 estate schools with a total of 60,891 children. The total child population in these estates was 91,225 indicating that only 66% attended schools. Girls form 41% of the students between 5 to 10 years, and 39% of those between the age of eleven and fifteen.
Due to this high rate of illiteracy, very rarely does the plantation sector have the employment opportunities available to the educated youth of the country and are solely dependent on the plantations for employment. 

Overcrowding, few and ill-used latrines, open drains and poor diet leave workers vulnerable to disease, particularly child workers. Protein and vitamin deficiency, chronic anaemia and hookworm abound, and the infant mortality rate is the highest in the country at 107 per thousand live births in 1972.
According to records maintained by the Planters’ Association in respect of estates which were members of Estates Health Scheme, which comprised the better run estates, the still-birth rate of these estates was a little over 100 per 1,000 births for several years; the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births rose from 100.6 in 1972 to 142.7 in 1974. The maternal mortality rate which averages a little more than 2 per 1,000 rose to 3.6 in 1973, and the general death rate, from a little over 11 per 1,000 to 18.7 in 1974. According to available government statistics, the general mortality rate on estates in 1974 was 24.2 per 1,000. The national averages for this year were 9.0 deaths per 1,000 (8.1 in 1972)

There is nothing more traumatic for a woman than to see her children die in infancy. The rates of infant mortality in Sri   Lanka have always been the highest on the plantations: for every 1,000 children born in 1930, 194 die on the plantations. The figures fell to 115 in 1955 and to 94 in 1965, but rose in 1974 to 163. Having come down in subsequent years, the figure has recently risen again, reflecting the heightening level of malnutrition among mothers in the plantations. For example in the estate dominated Nuwara-Eliya District the maternal mortality rate stood at 1.7 per 1,000 deliveries for the rest of the Island that year. The infant mortality rate stood at 79 per thousand as compared to 37.7 per 1,000 for the rest of the period.

Some plantations provide hospital facilities while others provide the service of a dispenser. Dispensers are not adequately qualified to attend to urgent or serious illnesses. The shortage of properly trained and qualified personnel is a major obstacle to improving health services on the estates.

Maternity facilities are provided on many of the estates but the shortage of qualified midwives is acute. It is estimated that on the estates half the births take place in cramped and  poorly ventilated line rooms with no medical supervision.

These conditions would have contributed further to the high maternal and neo-natal mortality rates characteristic of this sector.

Pneumonia and bronchitis are major causes of the high mortality rate of children on the plantations.

These diseases have a more serious impact in this sector than in the rest of the country. This may be due to the high altitudes at which most estates are situated, and poor housing and hospital conditions in the sector. The high incidence of malnutrition amongst estate pre-schoolers could also lessen their resistance to these diseases.

An. examination of the medical facilities provided by the Janatha Estate Development Board for its work force and their facilities will reveal the inadequacy of the medical facilities provided even by a State Corporation. There are 322 estates under the management of the J.E.D.B. The estimated population in these estates is assessed as 414,912 with 214,689 non-workers. These estates are only provided with 193 dispensaries, 50 maternity homes and 35 hospitals. The medical staff consists of 81 apothecaries, 103 Estate Medical Assistants, 20 qualified Estate Medical Attendants and 95 registered midwives.
For serious or urgent illnesses requiring hospitalization, the workers are entitled to enter the state hospitals away from the estates, on such occasions estates are expected to arrange and pay for transport.

On the estates, emphasis is placed on curative medicine only. Many diseases could be eliminated with adequate health education and preventive care.

Living conditions
Another major contributory factor for the low quality of life of children working on the plantations is their poor living conditions.

For a period of over 150 years, workers on the tea plantations lived in sub-human conditions in ‘line rooms.’ These are barrack type rooms built originally for a migratory labour force. This still remains the most usual form of housing. These “line rooms” consist of a long, narrow building partitioned into rooms 10 feet by 12 feet, with a long verandah 5 to 6 feet wide. They are poorly lit and ill-ventilated and toilet facilities are virtually non-existent. There is usually no source of even tolerably clean water close by.

Although penalties are imposed on employers for non compliance of the aforementioned provisions, these provisions of law are rarely or never implemented by an employer. The law enforcing authorities rarely have the time or inclination to enforce the law. Overcrowding is rampant, and since the workers have no access to alter native accommodation, they are forced to live in these inhuman conditions. A recent survey has shown that 5 to 6 people on an average live in old style “line rooms”. Most of these “line rooms”, which were built during the colonial period are in a dilapidated condition with leaky roofs, damp floors and no proper ventilation. It is in a “line room” that the family sleep, cook their food, entertain their friends and accommodate their dead until burial.

They are often occupied by a father, mother, adult sons and daughters, young children and spouses of adult children. Since no privacy is possible, the children are exposed to the facts of life from a very tender age, and in some instances female children run the risk of rape or sexual molestation.
In these line rooms, labourers endure a harsh and oppressive existence. It was only in 1941, that it was made illegal for adults from different families to share a common line room.

A 1973 survey of consumer finances showed that overcrowding was 35% in urban and rural areas respectively, but was 75% in the plantations. A 1979 survey, shows that  23% of the- estate households live in one room and 50% in two rooms, while the corresponding rural section also shows the poverty of the plantation sector in terms of facilities and equipment. For example, 43% of the estate households lack latrines, compared to 11% of urban and 26% of rural households. 1.7% of estate households have electricity, compared with 38% of urban and 6.7% of rural households,

Child labour
Children from early times, (approximately the 1830s) formed part of the labour force of the tea plantations in Sri Lanka.

There were no laws to protect them from exploitation by their employers. They therefore became a good source of cheap, docile labour, being assigned the same tasks as adults, in some of the most labour intensive tasks on the plantations, such as plucking and weeding.

Even today, they form the most deprived segment within the deprived plantation sector.

When the plantations were first opened out, the planters defended the employment of children on the plantations as a “stern necessity”. “Civilisation has learned to abhor child labour as an abomination. In this country, the abomination is defended as a stern necessity. This only proves how much more necessary it has been to introduce a more human occupation into the prevailing ideas about labour”

These views, reflect the attitude of the government of the day to the employment of child labour on plantations.

This is not surprising, considering the fact that those who were responsible for the framing of labour policy were themselves employers of  labour. In fact, the purpose of what is refered to as the “first piece of  labour legislation, viz., the contract for Hire and Service Ordinance No. 5 of 1841 was to bind the worker to his contract, offences such as “bolting”, failure to complete the allotted task or insubordination to the employer, being made punishable with imprisonment.

Section 23 of  Ordinance No. 11 of 1865 empowered Court to re-direct deserters to return to work under their former employers. The Service Contracts Ordinance was amended in 1884 to enable the Attorney General to prosecute errant employers as it had been brought to the notice of the authorities that wages had sometimes remained unpaid for as long  as 2 to 5 months. Hitherto it had been left to the worker to take whatever legal action he could against his master. Following this Ordinance, The Estate Labour (Indian) Ordinance No. 13 of 1889 was enacted, which gave some relief to workers. This Ordinance as amended from time to time, assured the worker 6 days work per week, regular payment of wages and freedom from arrest in civil process in execution of a decree for money. Ordinance No. 43 of 1921 repealed the Penal clauses for breach of civil contract in the Service Contracts Ordinance. The Indian Immigrant Labour Ordinance No. 1 of 1923 provided for the creation of a Department of Indian Immigrant Labour and for the appointment of an agent of the government of India to watch the interests of nationals. In 1927, the Minimum Wages Ordinance No. 27 was enacted, which provided inter alia for the determination of minimum wages by wages boards, and prohibited the employment of children under the age of 10.  This was the first piece of legislation to prescribe a minimum age and a minimum wage for employment, after nearly 100 years of British rule.

The factor that was chiefly responsible for these measures was pressure brought from the Indian Government, which kept a watchful eye on the conditions under which the Indian labourer lived and worked in Sri Lanka.

Sector 4 of the Minimum Wages (Indian Labour) Ordinance stipulates that:
“No employer shall knowingly employ for work on estates any child below the age of 10 years, or knowingly permit such child to be employed”.
Section 16 of the said ordinance made it an offence for an employer or any person to contravene this provision of law. Such contravention was punishable with a fine not exceeding one hundred rupees.

From 1927 until 1957, the minimum age prescribed by law for the employment of chi1dren on tea plantations was the age of 10.
In 1957, regulations framed under the Young Persons and Children’s Act No. 47 of 1956 introduced certain reforms in the area of child employment.
These regulations totally prohibited the employment of children under  14 years on tea plantations.
19  Legislative Enactments of Ceylon - Volume v, Chapter 135.

Section 34 of this Act defines”- 
A “child” is a person who is under the age of 14 years.
A “young person” is a person who has attained the age  of 14 years but is under the age of 18 years.
Section 13 (1) stipulates, inter alia,  that no child shall be employed:
a. before the close of school hours on any day on which is required to attend school, or
b. at any time between 8.00  a.m. and 6.00 p.m.
c. for more than two hours on any day on which he is required to attend school.
d. for more than two hours on any Sunday.
Section 14 (3) of Act No. 47 of 1956 enacted that:
“If any child is employed in contravention of any regulation made under this section, the employer and any person – (child employed) to whose act or default the contravention is attributable shall be guilty of an offence, and shall, on conviction after summary trial before a Magistrate be liable to a fine not exceeding one thousand rupees or imprisonment of either description for a period not exceeding six months or both such fine or such imprisonment.”

Working hours and wages
The working hours of children employed on plantations are the same as for adults. Their official work day is of eight hours duration. They are expected to report for muster at approximately 7.00 a.m. where they are allocated their work for the day. Children, who are allocated the work of plucking, in many cases take a considerable time to reach their place of work, as distances involved on large estates can be several miles. On reaching the field, they pluck leaves continually until 12 noon. At noon  they walk to the weighing shed where their load is weighed and recorded. Their work in the afternoon is the same as the morning. Work on normal days finishes at 4.00  p.m.

When children are employed for plucking they are required to pluck a certain number of kilogrammes for which they receive a minimum daily wage. For anything above the minimum requirement that they pluck, they receive wages at an over kilo rate. The payment for this “over kilo” is less than the per kilo rate. This method of payment is in force in spite of the law requiring employers to pay them on a time rate basis. They are paid once a month, but on a daily basis. Therefore, their total monthly wage is dependent upon the number of days worked, which varies particularly for the tasks of tea plucking, and weeding. Thus, a daily wage system is a fertile ground for exploitation by employers, who parade the plantations scene as Managers, Superintendents and Visiting Agents. The continued demand for a fixed minimum monthly wage rather than a daily wage rate to workers has been voiced for a period of over 20 years, but has been deliberately ignored and rejected, although the executives, who are employed on these plantations are paid on a monthly basis, and are paid an annual bonus determined on their aggregate monthly salary. Labourers on some estates, are paid an annual bonus, which is determined according to the number of days they have worked.

Any demand by the workers for higher wages is denied on the lame and unjustifable excuse that the industry has not obtained the target profit. The gross profit remains as large as it had been for years. The minimum wage scale and the unfair and inequitable distribution of profits, keep the plantation labour perenially at poverty level and in a state of perpetual indebtedness.      

The rather meagre wage increases that the plantation worker has been able to obtain for himself from time to time have hardly kept pace with the increases in the cost of living and have often been off-set by a decrease in the number of days on which he is offered work.

Child workers have to put in the same number of hours of work as adults, in order to claim their annual leave. Children and adults are governed  by the same rules on matters such as overtime payment and payment for work done on statutory     holidays, children are not granted any concessions whatsoever.
It is regrettable that no government up to date has reduced the working hours of children without reducing their pay.

Although children, like adults, are entitled to a minimum monthly wage whilst working on the plantations it is note-worthy that children are paid a lower wage than adults. 

The employer justifies the lower rate of wages on the basis that, the productivity of children is lower than that of adults. 

Rarely is a child labourer’s wage spent on the welfare of the child, since a child does not have control over how the wages are spent. It is customary on estates for the father to collect the pay of all working members of his family. On pay day, the father uses the family income first to pay for goods obtained on credit from the local shop keeper, a sizeable amount of the balance which should be spent on better food, often goes for the conspicuous or harmful consumption of alcohol by the parents. 

This naturally results in chronic and acute malnutrition in the plantations sector, which is very much higher than in other sectors.

The incidence of  blindness was found to be greatest in the estate sector. 

The health deficiencies in this sector are also reflected in the prevalence of stunting among infants caused by protein energy malnutrition.

Another form of child labour on the estates is the employment of children under the age of 14 years. These children work at jobs which are often invisible and unpaid. This form of labour is encouraged by parents. They help their parents in plucking tea during the flush seasons in cash plucking and Sunday plucking. The increased output is registered as their parents’ work. Similarly, when a family gets a weeding contract for a fixed amount of money, all family members work, including children under the age of 14. Children also perform other household tasks such as looking after their infant brothers and sisters; taking lunch for their parents; collecting firewood for domestic consumption. Often it is their unpaid domestic labour that enables mothers to go out to work. The children affected must necessarily drop out or forego the opportunity of attending school.

The picture that has emerged is a depressing one. It is not maintained that there are no other areas in Sri Lanka where such conditions exist, or that any one sector should be singled out for favoured treatment. In fact, there are children employed in the urban and rural areas, who are economically and socially far worse off and even more underprivileged than the child worker in the plantation sector. 

They are totally deprived of even the bare necessities of life. There are also many areas, besides those in which plantation workers live which need rehabilitation, reconstruction and integral development. The question should rather be seen as a matter of fairness and justice towards an easily identified sector of the population, (forming nearly one tenth of our children of school age) who due to their helpless ignorance, and the inhumanity of their social structure, have been exploited for a period of over 100 years, and have been looked upon as the cheapest source of labour to work, the tea plantations from which we get a substantial portion of our national income and a major share of our foreign exchange earnings. With the recent legislation granting those plantation workers who fall into the category of “stateless persons”, citizenship rights, it is believed that they will now be able to be integrated into the community.

One also hopes that with the granting of full citizenship rights to the stateless immigrant workers in the plantations, the State will also review the problem of “child labour” in the country and take remedial measures to have it totally abolished; and also ensure that children enjoy all the rights stipulated in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

This was a paper submitted by the writer at the Law Asia Conference in Malaysia recently. 

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