Mythri Jegathesan


Women in Sri Lanka’s Estate sector have issues of their own but these are hardly recognized, highlighted and redressed whether within the plantation structure or in the larger Sri Lankan State structure, says Mythri Jegathesan, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Santa Clara University, US, who has done intensive fieldwork in the plantations of the Central Province.

In her award-winning work: Tea and Solidarity –Tamil Women and Work in Post-war Sri Lanka (University of Washington Press and Tambapanni Academic Publishers, Colombo, 2023), Jegathesan points out that males dominate the entire spectrum of life in the plantation Tamil community, including the familial, social and political aspect.

Tamil women in Sri Lanka’s plantations are a marginalized lot within the marginalized plantation Tamils, who prefer to be called Hill Country or “Malaiyaha Tamils.”

Women do the most critical job in the plantations, plucking tea leaves exactly the way it should be, from the crack of dawn to late in the afternoon in the biting cold of the hills. Women tea pluckers are also the visible symbols of the iconic “Ceylon” Tea in advertisements across the globe.

But apparently, the women are meant to be seen, not heard. They are pushed into oblivion in community situations other than tea plucking. Specifically, they are nowhere in the picture when problems of plantation workers are discussed and decisions taken by authorities whether within the plantation structure or in State institutions.

Women share with their men all the problems of the Hill Country Tamil community, such as inadequate wages, poor housing, lack of educational facilities etc. Government statistics say that the rate of poverty in the Estate Sector is higher as compared to the Rural and Urban Sectors. The Estates are visibly lagging behind in health and educational indices also.

The Hill Country Tamils are still landless and do not own their Line Rooms. Housing projects have been initiated, but they have a way to go.

Agricultural and ecological factors determine labour output which is linked to their wages. Most are in steep debt. One of the critical functions of income is the repayment of debts. Debts are incurred to meet basic needs as well as social and cultural functions necessary for meet equally pressing psychological and social needs.

An example of the latter is the large amount of money spent on marriages’and child births. The coming-of-age ceremonies on which thousands of rupees are spent are thought to be necessary to publicly announce that the girl is ready for marriage. And marriage is considered essential for social status as well as sexual security.

However, the men in the plantation sector take up only issues they consider to be of “general” interest such as wages, Collective Agreements, and the State’s programs for the workers, avoiding women’s issues relating to work, health and birth control. There have been charges of forced sterilization conducted through an incentive scheme for birth  control motivators. At any rate, sterilization has been the highest in the Estate Sector.

Decisions on political affiliations are also considered beyond the pale of female participation.

Plantation women feel the need for women Overseers who will understand their problems better. But there was only one woman Overseer and she was not a Tamil. A retired worker blamed labour union leaders for preventing women from taking up leadership positions.

Non-recognition of women’s concerns by men fellow workers was brought out sharply at a retreat organized by the Plantation Social Sector Forum in August 2009, in which Jegathesan participated. Out of the 13 participants, 11 were men and three were women, including Jegathesan. A female worker, Priya, made a hard-hitting presentation of women’s issues. She mentioned a lack of awareness about the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, maltreatment of widows, lack of female Overseers in the plantations, presence of respiratory diseases among tea leaf pluckers, young girls committing suicide on account of domestic and love problems, increasing divorce and the mismanagement of remittances from abroad.

She also proposed culturally appropriate ways in which these issues could be addressed. But before she could exhaust the 10 minutes allotted to her, an older male participant sternly asked the chairman Patrick to stop her and have a discussion on “pressing issues” like the Collective Agreement and the Ten-Year National Action Plan.

But Patrick reprimanded him saying: “We need to admit that women have no space. We have not given them space.” The admonition appeared to shame the participants. But when the discussion resumed, it was on the Collective Agreement. As Kumari Jayawardena wrote, “women work within the boundaries laid down by men.”

This is so despite the fact that women are 50% of the Malaiyaha Tamil population and are wage earners just as much as men are. In order to make up for earning shortfalls in the plantations both men and women work outside the Estates, either in the towns of Sri Lanka or abroad.

In fact, more plantation Tamils work outside the Estates than in the plantations. In 2016, out of the recorded 987,074 residents in the Regional Plantation Company (RPC)-run Estates, only 163.068 (16%) were full-time workers in the RPCs. Others were either partly or fully employed outside while occupying the Line Rooms.

Outside the Estates, the men work as unskilled labour and women work as housemaids if these are uneducated. But an increasing number of both boys and girls with O-Level education, are working in white-collar jobs in private establishments and shopping malls.

One reason for seeking work outside the Estate is that the young, both male and female, are increasingly resenting the caste and class profiling in the plantations. They seek the social anonymity and social mobility available in the urban areas to re-define themselves.

In Kirkwall Estate, where Jegathesan did her fieldwork, the majority of workers identified themselves as belonging to the Pallar and Paraiyar castes, which in India, are deemed “Dalits” the lowest in the Indian caste hierarchy. There were higher castes also among the plantation workers, who enjoyed a higher standard of living and were considered a upper class.

When the plantation worker moves to an urban area, especially Colombo, he or she acquires a degree of anonymity that enables the establishment of cross-caste networks that could lead to liaisons based on free will and not caste-dictated. This applies to both male and female migrants. Jegathesan notes that Line Room society has problems accepting such unconventional relationships but it accommodates them for the sake of the extra income that urban links bring.

The plantation-urban dichotomy is not mutually exclusive, Jegathesan asserts. Every plantation migrant to an urban area has a foot in his or her Estate Line Room because the Estate settlement is his home village or “one’s Ur” in Tamil.

Jegathesan observes that the Estate and its Line Rooms give the plantation Tamil a physical, social and psychological anchorage in a country in which he is still an outsider despite the community living here for 200 years. Through years of isolation in the plantations, kept out of the administrative structure of the Ceylonese/Sri Lankan State, put under the charge of the private companies running the Estate, and denied ownership of land or even of his tiny Line Room, the plantation Tamil has been made to feel different from the rest of the island’s communities and disadvantaged to boot.

Women have a pre-eminent role in making the Line Room a “home”. Jegathesan points out that is seen in the loving way plantation women maintain and beautify their Line Rooms and proudly install the gadgets acquired through urban or foreign employment.

The women do make the best of a bad situation but they are badly in need of the assistance of the plantations’ management, the State, the political parties and their own men too.