Close to a million people in Sri Lanka work in the tea industry. Tea estates were established during colonial times back in the 1800s, with a Tamil workforce. Many of the traditional structures and separation between workers and management have remained in place, despite changes to local ownership.
As Sri Lanka has developed, there are increasing opportunities for workers outside the tea estates, so there is an urgent need to change working and decision-making practices so that they are fit for a 21st century workforce and the tea industry can thrive.
The Ethical Tea Partnership has been supporting a number of innovation and empowerment programmes to improve workers’ lives, their involvement in the business and decision-making processes and opportunities for progression, with a particular focus on women.
These include our collaboration with CARE International on a large-scale Plantation Community Empowerment Programme, which ran from 2008 to 2011.
Through our partnership with CARE International, we helped change decision-making process and priority setting on 13 tea estates in Sri Lanka, delivering a a range of benefits including better relationships between workers and management, improved living and working conditions, better worker morale, increased productivity and the advancement of women’s rights.
Building on CARE’s tried and tested approach, Community Development Foras were developed. They acted like ‘mini parliaments’, bringing together workers, management, trade union officials, and community/estate residents to discuss working and living conditions on tea estates, and prioritise action and investment plans.
An independent analysis by the New Economics Foundation found that for every dollar invested in the programme, there was a $26 return on investment to workers, to the tea industry, or to the community as a whole.
The programme was carried out from 2008 to 2011, and some of the key outcomes were:
- 90% of workers felt economic and social opportunities had improved.
- 25% improvement in workforce. productivity and better estate services, e.g. crèches.
- Improved worker-management relationships.
- Reduced domestic violence and alcoholism.
- Improved opportunities for women, including better control of household finances, leadership roles in communities, and better career opportunities.