Palani is one of about 500,000 workers in the Sri Lankan tea industry. Like most of them, she descends from Tamils who were brought to British Ceylon from the Indian mainland in the 1820s. Tea cultivation was introduced to Sri Lanka by the British after coffee cultivation had failed. To get the industry going, plantation owners needed lots of manual labor, and people from India's southern Tamil regions were recruited into an indentured labor system that tied workers to plantations. Although slavery was outlawed in the British Empire, these workers were unpaid and completely at the will of plantation owners. They arrived indebted and had to pay for their own transportation, until this rule was changed in 1922. Workers lived in crowded shacks, without sanitation, running water, medical facilities or schools for their children. Working conditions were very harsh, with long hours and heavy quotas. When Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, the tea workers were legally designated as "temporary immigrants" and were denied citizenship. In the 1980s, after more than 200 years living in Sri Lanka, the descendants of Indian Tamil indentured servants were granted Sri Lankan citizenship rights. However, they continue to be among the most marginalized and impoverished people in the country. There are few people advocating for the plantation workers, and their living wage remains below €5 a day.
Sri Lanka currently produces around 300 million kilograms of tea annually. It is the fourth-largest tea producer in the world, behind China, India and Kenya. But tea workers remain mired in poverty. Tens of thousands of plantation workers throughout Sri Lanka have united in recent years to demand a minimum wage of 1,000 rupees a day (about €5). The "1000 Movement" is one of the largest mobilizations of Sri Lankan workers. The last agreement between workers and owners was in October 2018. Companies refused the demand for 1,000 rupees daily. A wage increase from 500 to 700 rupees was tentatively agreed to, although the agreement still needs to be signed by the tea companies. However, taking into account attendance and productivity incentives, the old wage was actually 730 rupees, say workers. These incentives were removed under the new 750 rupees agreement, resulting in an actual increase in wages of only 20 rupees (about 10 cents).
To earn a daily wage of 700 Sri Lankan rupees (€3.50, $4.15), Palani has to collect a minimum of 18 kilograms (40 pounds) of tea leaves.