Estate children: Trapped by poverty, destined for labour By Sumudu Chamara

It is an open secret that Sri Lanka’s plantation sector community is a segment of the population that receives step-motherly treatment from the authorities, and endures abysmal living conditions. Poverty has become the community’s defining characteristic, and what is more unfortunate is how it persists through generations, despite some attempts to provide better education and a better life for children from plantation sector areas.

The death of a 16-year-old girl who had allegedly been employed as a maid at MP Rishad Bathiudeen’s house sparked fresh controversy over the state of the lives of plantation sector children, at a time the country is already enraged at the numerous incidents of child sexual abuse and exploitation reported during the past few weeks.

The girl, who passed away on 15 July, had been admitted to the Colombo National Hospital on 3 July after sustaining burn injuries, and the subsequent judicial medical examination revealed that she had been subjected to prolonged sexual abuse. It was reported that the girl in question had come from a plantation area, which led to discourse about the brokers that facilitate the process of supplying child labourers for jobs in Colombo.

A new discourse

Speaking in this regard with The Morning on Monday (19), a collective of over 56 organisations named the Malayaha Organisation for Democracy (MOD) said that they had commenced a discussion about the issue.

“Some of these families have no choice other than to send their children to work. There are brokers here who facilitate this process, although with the onset of the pandemic, many who had left for work in Colombo lost their jobs and have since come back to the plantations,” stated Movement for Plantation People’s Land Rights (MPPLR) Convenor and Plantation Workers’ Wage Rights Movement (PWWRM) Co-ordinator S.T. Ganeshalingam.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Plantation Housing and Community Infrastructure State Minister Jeevan Thondaman had requested Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera to launch a thorough investigation into this matter. Speaking to the media yesterday (20), Thondaman confirmed he had made such a request, and that investigations have been launched to look into two aspects of the matter; namely, why a girl of that age was sent to the house in question as a domestic worker, and the circumstances that led to her death.

Thondaman noted: “These types of incidents show the harsh truth that child labour is very real in Sri Lanka, and we need to deal with it. Actions will be taken against the perpetrators of the above incident, regardless of their status. I urge the people living in plantation areas to register their children with the existing educational and vocational training facilities in those areas. These sorts of incidents have been happening for a long time; however, so many cases have gone unheard. If the public too can extend their co-operation, we would be able to address these situations.”

Child labourers

The working definition of “child labour”, which the International Labour Organisation (ILO) formulated with the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), is “any child between five and 17 years who are engaged in for one hour or more in an economic activity during the reference period of the past seven days”. In this context, “economic activity” refers to an activity in which a child is engaged for a payment, profit, or family gain.

As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, the legal parameters pertaining to the minimum age for employment changed quite recently. Last month, the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) announced that the minimum age for employment had been increased from 14 to 16 years, in light of this year’s World Day Against Child Labour. Even though this is still one year less than the ILO recommended minimum age, this increase of the minimum age from 14 to 16 was considered a progressive step by many who commented on the decision.

This decision was based on an earlier decision to extend the age of compulsory education to 16 years, which was made under the Education Ordinance’s regulations pertaining to compulsory education. In this regard, NCPA Chairman Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana said: “On 18 January 2021, we were able to pass a special Act (the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act, No. 2 of 2021) with regard to child labour. The Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act, No. 47 of 1956, as amended, had prohibited children up to 14 years of age from working. This new Act, however, increases the minimum age to 16 years.”

According to the NCPA, children between the ages of 16 and 18 years can only be recruited for jobs that do not pose a threat to their life, health, education, and moral development, and it is strictly prohibited to recruit them for unsafe jobs or jobs that require them to work at night. Recruiting children for street vending activities, the drug and liquor trade, circuses, entertainment activities for monetary benefits, and prostitution, as well as using children for commercial activities via the cyberspace, are offences under Sri Lanka’s criminal law.

State of life of child labourers from the estate sector

According to a comprehensive ILO study conducted in 2008, a child can be influenced into engaging in economic activity for payment by a host of mutually non-exclusive factors, including parental poverty and illiteracy, poor social and economic circumstances, the lack of awareness, the lack of access to basic and quality education and skills, the high rate of adult unemployment and/or under employment, and attitudes towards child labour (particularly in South Asia where children are expected to perform physical work as early as when they are 10 years old in some countries).

The ILO based its findings on a study conducted with the participation of 100 respondents (heads of households, regardless of the age) each from plantation sector estates in the Badulla, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura, and Kegalle Districts. The ILO said that even though Sri Lanka had tended to create an impression that child labour is not a serious issue in plantations due to the plantation management being unable to hire children legally as labourers, tea plantations have been a traditional source of child domestic labour.

Of the samples, 0.2% of the respondents were between 15 and 19 years old, and were heads of households. The ILO explained that as a majority of households (72.2%) were headed by people over 40 years old, the families sought the support of their children to maintain expenses, which in turn made the children feel they should financially support the family/elders.

A slightly better picture was painted in terms of children’s education. Out of a total of 2,999 children, only 43 had been employed as workers. Of those in the five-13 age group, 98.4% were students, while 0.8% were employed; and out of those in the 14-17 age group, 73.8% were students, while 16.9% were employed.

The marital status of parents is also a factor that leads children to become child labourers, the ILO said, as it plays a role in determining a household’s economic and social characteristics. A total of 16% of household heads were widowed, which seems to be a very high figure. Also, a widowed parent would most often lose support from others, being forced to manage the household with the income of a single breadwinner, compelling children to seek employment to support the family.

With regard to the reasons for child labour, 33.3% of household heads had said that the family required the child’s income, while 28.6% of them had said they could not afford schooling. In 83.3% of the cases, the child had made the decision to work, while the parents had made that decision in 11.9% and 4.8% of the cases, respectively.

Based on the interviews conducted in the Kandy District, the study concluded: “The younger generation does not like to work in the estates. They wait till they reach working age and then migrate to find employment outside the estates. Boys find employment mainly in and around Colombo. Girls seek employment in garment factories. They find employment through persons who are already employed in these institutions.

“Many children aged 14-15 years stop schooling and spend their time playing. Children older than 10 years go to nearby villages for clove-plucking during the harvest season, although this is a dangerous task. Money attracts many children into this activity, though the harvesting season for cloves lasts only a few months, if not weeks. Though the school administration often takes stern action against this practice, children engage in this activity after school hours, over which the school administration has no control. These children give their earnings to their parents and guardians, and spend a portion of it themselves. Even the parents do not object to their kids making money at the expense of schooling.”

However, this need for additional income sometimes has a darker cause at its root. The interviews conducted in the Nuwara Eliya District had led to the following conclusion: “Alcoholism is a burning problem in the estate areas. Often, the male member of the household – i.e. the household head – is addicted to alcohol. There are cases where both parents are addicted to liquor. When the father is under the influence of alcohol, he quarrels with the mother. The calm family environment is shattered as a result. Often, their children are the victims of this process. Sometimes the drunken father beats up the children as well. The fear psyche disturbs the minds of the children and they lose concentration on their studies. Since the plantation houses are built in line rooms, the children are even disturbed by problems in the nearby households.

“Students report to school without having their breakfast. This leads to the loss of concentration and falling sick during school hours. Absenteeism and irregular attendance to school are prevalent in the plantation sector. The main reason for child labour is poverty. Parents do not have sufficient income to meet expenses on education, though it is given free. Parents prioritise earning money over giving children a good education. The perception of parents is such that sending the child to work is seen as credit (the child earns money), while sending them to school is seen as debit (the parents have to spend money).”

The report also noted that this disregard for education by household heads stemmed from a lack of education on their own part. “Almost 90% of the parents – particularly the father – do not seem to care about their children’s education. Neither have they cared for their children’s welfare. All they need is financial support from their children to maintain the family. Levels of education of the head of household will be an important factor having a direct impact on child labour, as it conditions their perception of children’s education and attitudes towards child labour. It was reported in the survey that more than half of the household heads have received only primary education. Only 2.2% of the heads of households have received upper secondary education,” the report further said.

Late last year, Amnesty International warned that the disruption of school education caused by the Covid-19 pandemic was risking children belonging to plantation communities being left behind, adding that if the State fails to deliver effective, innovative, timely, and multifaceted responses, children in plantation communities are in danger of not only dropping out of school, but also being pushed into child (including bonded) labour.

Sri Lanka’s plantation sector contributes almost 30% of the foreign exchange income to the country, and nearly one million people live in plantation areas. They are not only a considerable part of the country’s economy, but are also a considerable portion of the country’s general public – and so it is concerning that such a large and important segment of our society is left impoverished, even while the nation benefits from their hard work.

Studies suggest that besides poverty, the lack of education and unawareness of its importance are the main reasons why plantation sector-based parents allow and encourage their children to work. However, these issues are not new – authorities have been discussing their living conditions for years, if not decades. How their struggle to get a minimum daily wage of Rs. 1,000 was dealt with only highlights how ignored they are by mainstream political authorities, and it is indeed tragic.

Perhaps it is time that Sri Lankans, both the public and the authorities, change the mindset that divides such matters into “their issues” and “my issues”, and look at others’ issues as their own, because when it comes to addressing issues such as child abuse, there is a lot the general public can do to tackle the problem at its root.