Helping Sri Lanka’s Forgotten Tea Workers

Helping Tea Workers in Sri Lanka

Tea workers in the hill country of Sri Lanka stand near two buildings.
The roof of the rowhouse on the left was repaired by CRS. Photo: Laura Sheahen/CRS

On the island of Sri Lanka, high in the mountains, villagers gather tea leaves just as they’ve done for a century and a half. Every day, they walk over green hills covered with tea plants, stuffing the leaves into sacks that are collected each evening. A 20-pound bag might net them two or three dollars.

The villagers are also living the same way they lived when the tea business here began. They are crowded into dilapidated, ancient row houses built for them long ago by British colonizers. They have no electricity or plumbing. It takes nearly two hours on rough dirt roads for them to get down the mountain to schools or hospitals—that is, if they had cars.

Visiting the tea plantations is like going back in time. But the forgotten villagers can’t go forward.

When it rains, the roofs leak so badly it’s like being outside. But with no other options, whole families squeeze into closet-sized rooms in the long rowhouses, leaving out pots and pans to catch the worst of the leaks.

Through its local partner Caritas Kandy, Catholic Relief Services has repaired roofs, built bathrooms, and improved the infrastructure of several mountaintop villages where tea workers live. Free from the damp, families stay healthier. One man says his family has lived in a ramshackle outbuilding for 30 years—nearly his whole life. Now, thanks to the new roofing, they’ve moved back into their rooms.

Caritas also links the workers to local government and their plantation’s managers so they can advocate for their needs. On one plantation, workers did not have access to running water, but were near a town. By building a relationship with local government officials, tea estate workers successfully lobbied for the town’s water supply system to be extended to the plantation.

Sri Lanka’s tea plantations may be the land time forgot, but their people are no longer forgotten.

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