The death of 16 year-old housemaid Ishalini in a former Sri Lankan Minister’s house in Colombo recently has raised a number of issues of concern to the larger society and the government.

Among them, the non-implementation of laws relating to child labor has captured immediate attention, with politicians, civil society and the media calling for tighter laws and stricter enforcement.

However, Ishalini’s case has facets which go beyond the implementation of child labor laws. These facets are specific to the plantation workers’ community to which she belonged. Among the noteworthy aspects are: conditions which force parents to send their girls away to work in a distant town at a tender age; the appalling conditions in the plantations(notwithstanding significant improvements in the last two decades); continuing poverty, indebtedness, alcoholism, unhygienic and cramped living conditions marked by absence of privacy; poor educational facilities; and lack of avenues for advancement in life, especially for the youth.

The number of people affected is huge. The population living in the Estates (workers and dependents) accounts for about 4.4 % of the Sri Lankan population of 21 million or 924,000souls.

As per the Census and Statistics Department, the “Estate sector is at the bottom of the Sri Lankan socio-economic ladder as compared to the “Rural” and “Urban” sectors, in terms of the relevant indices. Nuwara Eliya district, where all the big plantations are, shows the highest poverty incidence among Sri Lankan districts.Nearly 73% of the population in the Estate sector fall into poorest 40% population of Sri Lanka.

Nearly 52% of households in Nuwara Eliyadistrict do not have houses of their own. The workers and their relations live in Estate-owned houses which are tiny, 10 by 10 or 12 by 12 “Line Rooms”. These are cramped, smelly and ill-lit. Out of 100 such households only 24 have title to their them.

About 85% of households in Sri Lanka as a whole, use safe drinking water. But in the Estates, only 46.2% have access to safe drinking water. Similarly, less than one-third of Estate households have a toilet available in their unit (a unit comprises a group of Line Rooms with different families living in them). With limited toilet facilities, women and girls are forced to go to the bushes at a distance to ease themselves and here they could be subjected to sexual harassment.  

Housing is a huge question in the Estates. The World Bank report of 2015 report entitled: Sri Lanka: Ending poverty and promoting shared prosperity says that between 1980 and 2014, only 31,000 houses had 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.

Yawning Educational Gap

There is welldocumented evidence of a wide gap in the education provided by government schools on Tea Estates compared with that provided in schools in Rural and Urban areas, the World Bank report says. In Sri Lankan government statistics, the Estates are treated as a separate category from “Rural” areas. Education in the Estates is characterized by lack of resources, lack of qualified teachers and poor teaching facilities. The subjects crucial for employment outside the Estates, namely Englishare taught by teachers without expertise or qualifications, leaving the youth on the Estates entirely unprepared for professional work away from the Estates.

In addition to this, the scale of poverty leads to high dropout rates. According to the 2015 World Bank report, only 53 to 63% of Estate children had completed their primary school education, which is significantly lower compared to Sri Lanka as a whole, where it stands at between 82and 86%.

Only 20% of the population of the Tea Estates have had secondary education and 2% had post-secondary education compared to the national average of 52% and 21% respectively. The proportion of tea Estate children completing Ordinary Levels stood at around 9%. However, significant progress had been registered at the highest level – the university level, according to former UNP MP and trade unionist, R. Yogarajan. “ Over 1000 of Estate youth have been able to enter the university system,” he says.

The poor health of the Estate population is matter of serious concern. 41% of Estate children are stunted and underweight. A major reason for the generally bad health in the Estate population and also economic distress is addiction of alcohol. 75% of the men have alcohol addiction issues. Many women also drink. Liquor is sold on credit in the Estates. Every wage day the creditors collect the dues, leaving little to meet other expenses,” Yogarajansaid.

Alcoholism leads to indebtedness. 69% of households in Nuwara Eliya district are in debt to an institution or another person. Borrowing from one to pay back another loan is common in this district and the Estates.

Alcoholism also lead to domestic violence. A survey revealed that 83% of tea estate women suffered from domestic violence, 20% of which was sexual violence. The women and the girls live under an oppressive patriarchy. Women constitute the majority of the union members in the plantations, but they have little say in the running of the unions.

The historically neglected Estate sector labor, the overall social and economic backwardness of the Easter laborers, a comprehensive lack of reasonable living conditions, educational facilities and avenues of advancement have together contributed to pushing young people out of the sector into other kinds of labor outside the plantations.

Domestic labor in the towns of Sri Lanka like Kandy and Colombo has emerged as an option for women and even girls as young 14 or 15.According to Yogarajan, the conservative Estate families prefer to send their young girls away from the Estate to “good families” in towns like Colombo so that they are protected from male predators in the Estates. But in some cases, the girls land up in city houses where the employers turn out to be predators.

The root cause of illegal child labor is poverty and social backwardness. And the exploitation of child workers by sexual predators attests to the deterioration of normative standards in the society at large, right across the socio-economic class structure. Add to this weakening of governmental and law and order institutions by political and money power, tragic cases like that of Ishalini are bound to come up.

The need of the hour is for the authorities to work out a comprehensive and integrated social, economic, cultural and institutional system with the involvement of all stakeholders, and implement the rules and norms formulated in both letter and spirit.  



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