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Nancy Savage


Almost 5% of the population of Sri Lanka work in the billion-dollar tea industry, picking leaves on the mountain slopes and processing the tea in plantation factories. The cultivation and selling of black tea has shaped the lives of generations of Sri Lankans since 1867. The fresh tea leaves are taken to a factory near the plantation for processing, then a rolling machine twists the withered leaves and begins the fermentation process, which starts to develop the distinctive flavor.

The machinery used in the tea processing is often up to 100 years old. Finished tea is separated by leaf size, and packaged in bulk bags to be sent for auction in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

The women’s hands move rapidly, as if in circles, picking tender tea leaves from the top of bushes. In a matter of seconds, as their palms brim with leaves, they reach out to the bags hanging from their shoulders and empty the leaves into them — a recurring action whose rhythm they have mastered, knowing well that their labour and speed is money, even though the money is far from fair. After a prolonged struggle for fair wages, the workers who sustain Sri Lanka’s economy are exhausted.

Over a million Sri Lankans are employed in the tea industry. The majority of the workforce is young women. There are children as well, the minimum working age is twelve. Girls typically follow their mothers, grandmothers and older sisters on the plantations, and are expected to perform most of the domestic duties. They live in housing known as "lines", a number of linearly attached houses with one or two rooms. This housing and the environmental sanitation conditions are generally poor for these laborers. There are typically between 6 to 24 line rooms in one line barrack. Rooms for laborers are often without windows so there is little or no ventilation. As many as 6 to 11 members may often live in one room together.

✐ Nancy Savage

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