Working the tea fields

The tea industry in Sri Lanka is more than just a critical part of the economy. It also gives a lifestyle – and a home – to thousands of people.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Sri Lanka’s tea plantations

It’s raining. Quite heavily, actually. But that’s not stopping the women at the Holyrood Estate from working.

With raincoats on, they stand amongst the rows of tea plants, plucking furiously. Their hands move fast – it almost seems like a blur – as they rip off the leaves and put them into the bag hanging off their bodies.

One lady looks up at me as I take a photo. She smiles, a big friendly grin. But she stops working only for a couple of seconds and then her hands are at it again. She has a quota to meet and there isn’t time for distractions.

Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka

I’m at the Holyrood Estate in the centre of Sri Lanka near the town of Nuwara Eliya. It’s one of many in this part of the country, which has ideal growing conditions and supplies much of the important Sri Lankan industry.

The Sri Lankan tea giant, Dilmah, famous across Australasia, uses this plantation.

It’s more than just a place of employment, though. Holyrood Estate, like most plantations, is also a community.

There are about 680 workers here but almost 4000 people live on the site. The rolling tea fields with their layers of plants and winding lines following the contours are the most distinctive part of the landscape.

Go a little deeper, though, and you’ll find a whole infrastructure for the people who make this their home.

Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka
Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka

The whole estate is about 465 hectares large. Some of the workers live in dormitory style accommodation, while there are also houses for families.

Most of the adults work in the plantations but some have jobs in the nearby town. Their children also live here and there are preschools and a new primary school nestled between the tea leaves.

Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka
Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka

I pop into the new primary school in the afternoon, just after class has finished. Most of the 180 students have left but there are still two here – their mother is one of the teachers.

They show me around, pointing out where they sit. The headmistress (who is extremely nice but I think would be terrifying if you were a misbehaving student!) tells me a bit about the school and how the MJF Foundation donated the funds to construct the new buildings.

The MJF Foundation, incidentally, is the charitable arm of the Dilmah tea company – and this is an important point.

Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka
Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka

The workers here at the tea planation are employees. But they are also a form of family. This is not a traditional job and there’s a special dynamic that exists between the companies and the employees.

There’s a duty of care and also a genuine desire to create a happy and healthy environment. The new school, so the children of the workers can be educated nearby, is part of it.

The medical centres, the recreational areas, and the pastoral care are all part of it.

Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka

When I meet up with the manager of the Holyrood Estate, he puts it best. He may technically be in charge of all the people on this plantation, but he doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s like a village,” he says.

“I don’t consider this to be a job. It’s more than a job. Even at midnight, if there’s an incident, I get involved. They also don’t treat me as a boss but as a leader. They consider me a leader and that’s different.”

Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka

It is worth noting, though, that from a corporate point of view, there is an economical advantage to making sure the employees and their families are cared for and are happy at Holyrood.

There are dozens of tea plantations in the surrounding hills here around Nuwara Eliya – and they always need workers.

“If we don’t look after them, someone else will get their service. We need to have good relationships, otherwise they will leave our company and go and work somewhere else.”

Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka

It’s no easy work, picking leaves in the tea fields all day, but nor is it quite as laborious as you might imagine.

They start their working day at 8 o’clock in the morning and pick until 12:30. There’s a lunch break until 2 o’clock and then more plucking until about 4:30.

It’s mainly women who do the plucking all day. Men do get out in the morning but then they tend to spend their afternoons on other tasks like fertilising, pruning and weeding.

Tea plantations, Holyrood Estate, Sri Lanka

The women I can see this afternoon, scattered through the green terraces, seem to have a lot of leaves in their bags but this is just a small fraction of what they’ll collect.

The aim for each person each day is to pick 18 kilograms. When you consider how light leaves are, that’s a lot of picking!

Quite often the workers will pick even more and they earn extra income for that. It’s all relative, though, I guess. The average wage is about $5 a day.

It’s a good life, though. One that comes with a community and care.

Sri Lanka’s tea industry is a very important part of the country’s economy and it’s the people who work in it that make it so strong.


There are some beautiful places to base yourself for a few days up in the highlands of Sri Lanka.


If you’re looking for a hostel, I think the Laughing Leopard is your best option.


For a friendly homestay at a great price, have a look at Nuwara Eliya Homestay.


One of the area’s nicest hotels is Jetwing St Andrews in a unique property.


And if you want stunning accommodation in a colonial mansion, have a look at Brockenhurst Bungalow.

22 thoughts on “Working the tea fields”

  1. You reminded me of my time in Darjeeling, where I visited quite a few tea gardens and met many tea-pluckers. These women work very hard! I’m glad you introduced Sri Lankan’s tea-pluckers who don’t seem to work any less than what I saw here in India. It’s nice to know about their lives in general, too.

    • Oh, they’re definitely hard working! The hours aren’t too long and they get a decent break in the middle of the day. So it’s not too hard overall. But they really get stuck into the plucking when they’re in the fields – remember the incentives for getting more than the quota!

    • $5 a day doesn’t sound like much, does it? Especially considering that it’s quite labour-intensive work! But that’s a decent salary for the working class in Sri Lanka and these are jobs that a lot of people want. You have to remember that they’re well looked after as well and their children get a good education and there is healthcare, etc.

    • Yes, as far as I could tell, they were looked after very well. I’m sure there are some difficulties that come from living on a tea plantation but it was really heartening to see how much effort was being put into trying to make sure the children got a good education and were healthy.

  2. I have a helper with me whose sister and brother work in the tea leaves
    she tells me that they do not get paid on time and get paid even less than what they are owed
    I have a feeling the brother is not putting in the hours that’s why as it seem only her family members are without proper pay as opposed to the couple of other girl’ families here.
    The other thing is apparently government provides the workers with families a home and she says that if her brother starts working elsewhere they will loose their housing – is this true? I mean if they have been doing this for all their life like past 20 or so years is the rule about losing the house still stands? I feel they are being fooled…or maybe they don’t get the rules well.

    • I’m not sure about this particular case – perhaps there is something different about their conditions or their agreement. While some companies make an effort to care for their workers, I guess each plantation is probably a little bit different too. Hopefully they can get things sorted out so they get what they are owed.

  3. munbathaya vida ippoluthu nanragave ullathu estate
    migaum sirantha murayul valinadathugirargal sirantha murayil vetri pera valthukkal

  4. “It’s a good life, though.”… no, it’s anything but… 85% alcoholism amongst the male tea workers and 83% domestic violence against the women. Hotspot for suicide in a country with the highest suicide rate in the world…

    Have a look at our charity and the work we do:

    I am afraid this is a very touristy view of tea estates… high levels of sexual violence, over 90% of our students living off less than $1 a day… it is far from a good life, it is a life of exploitation and enforced servitude, derided by the rest of the country who consider tea pickers third class and lagging behind the rest of the country on every single KPI.

    Naive article that will do more harm than good by promoting the words of the tea estate manager rather than finding out about the worker.

    • Hi Aswin – it’s lovely to hear from you. Thanks for the comment. That’s interesting to hear your thoughts on the tea. I believe that these tea fields are generally considered to be quite good, but obviously conditions are variable. I would love to hear any thoughts you have about what it was like to be a tea planter in Talawakelle!

  5. Thank you for taking the time to go beyond the usual tourist interests and socialise the experiences you had to something as easy to appreciate as a refreshing cup of tea Michael. My great grandfather was born in West Holyrood Estate in 1890 and spent his formative years there before pursuing a career in the tea industry in Kandy which is also my hometown. I can relate to the lives you describe. I am sure you would agree that there is more to understanding life in a new surrounding than is possible to observe through a short visit :-).


Leave a comment