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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Where should you stay in Nuwara Eliya?
If you’re looking for something budget, the Hi Lanka Hostel 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.