Sri Lanka’s tea industry marks 150 years, this year. As the country hosts celebratory events we explore what the future holds for the indentured labour force at the bottom of the extensive tea value chain. As a group, they still remain among the poorest in Sri Lanka. At the heart of this poverty is an [...]

Business Times

Breaking down the enclave system: What next for tea workers


Sri Lanka’s tea industry marks 150 years, this year. As the country hosts celebratory events we explore what the future holds for the indentured labour force at the bottom of the extensive tea value chain. As a group, they still remain among the poorest in Sri Lanka. At the heart of this poverty is an enclave system that has bred dependency, merged work and home and forged an identity crisis based on work. Breaking down the system is met with resistance from the workers, estate management and political forces.


However, in the words of Dr. Dan Seevaratnam, an industry leader, continuing in this manner is lunacy.

Changing the current system to block plucking or family plucking has been undertaken in an effort to save the tea estates – and attempt to improve the wellbeing of the workers. As the name suggests block plucking involves parceling blocks of tea land/tea bushes to estate workers to harvest on their own time, with their own labour. The plucked leaves are then sold to the estate. This is not a new concept; and was tried by David Gibben in Sri Lanka in the 1950s as a way to move away from paying wages to paying for the tea. The concept is similar to how tea smallholders or other “out-grower” models operate. Some of the criteria (based largely on a document by the Tea Research Institute – TRI and information from estate managers) for the operationalisation of this model are: blocks are given to workers on the payroll who still have to fulfill their duties as workers, but the plucking itself can be done by other family members; the land is leased for a predetermined time (duration unclear); only tea can be cultivated and no construction is permitted; the number of tea bushes per person be between 5000 – 7000; the estate will buy the green leaf at a higher price per kg than that paid through the collective agreement; a predetermined price will be set based on either the tea commissioner’s formula or the factory and Net Sale Average (NSA). The TRI definitions also mention royalty fees for land ownership that can be deducted, and accounts pertaining to each individual to be maintained by the estate. A variation of this model suggests that land can be portioned and leased to the Estate Worker Housing Co-operatives (EWHC) who then acts as a middleman to handle the allocation of land as well as collect the green leaf. The estate will provide field maintenance support (pruning, fertilizer), technical support, maintenance of factories, branding and marketing.

As the idea of block plucking did not really catch on in the estates until recently, it is important to recognise the reasons for its recent reemergence. Low yields from mature tea bushes, low labour productivity, rising costs of production, the dispute over wages, the lack of labour, together with changing global dynamics of trade, consumption and competition with other tea exporters, all propelled the need for an alternative. But how secure is the alternative? What advantages and disadvantages can it offer workers?

CEPA recently had a discussion with 15 civil service organisations working with estate communities to explore their experiences of block plucking.

Block Plucking

Several RPCs have now initiated block plucking and they follow the basic criteria listed above with slightly varying conditions. The discussions highlighted some main issues.

Land ownership is of primary concern. The land and the tea bushes are leased and can be taken back from the workers at short notice (seven days) if they do not perform as expected. As the land is leased to workers and they remain on the labour force, it prevents a transition out of the enclave system and does not promote a sense of entrepreneurship or greater autonomy.

Implications and uncertainties also arise on what will happen to the formal employment status of workers, their wages, benefits of EPF/ETF, maternity leave and other benefits, if the system is applied on an estate-wide scale.

There is also uncertainty on what this could mean for the minimum number of days per worker during a month.

The fact that they get land or bushes that have low yields, that then require fertilizer and other maintenance expenses, coupled with the fact that the number of tea bushes they get is in the range of 1500 – 3000 (lower than that stipulated by the guideline), all combine to reduce earning potential. The income they can earn is believed to be Rs. 4000 – 6000, and the opportunity costs of other types of income may not make this a lucrative offer – especially for the men. For females, especially tea pluckers, the couple of extra hours of work may be more feasible, though female-headed households may not be able to spend this extra time in the field. It is also unclear how the price is determined per kg for the green leaf, and if the estates are supposed to provide maintenance functions so that there is no added cost to the worker.

No doubt there are obvious benefits to the estates, and opportunity for the estate workers to earn an extra income. However, if this is going to become a widely applied model, more transparency and dialogue as well as information on how the systems will operate are needed before its viability can be assessed.

((WALK the LINE is a monthly column for the Development Page of the Business Times contributed by CEPA, an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues. CEPA can be contacted by visiting the website or via

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