Innovative ways of working in Sri Lanka’s tea estates

In Sri Lanka, tea is hand-picked and most of the tea workforce is made up of tea pluckers – a role held predominantly by women.

The context

In Sri Lanka, tea is hand-picked and most of the tea workforce is made up of tea pluckers – a role held predominantly by women. Increasing opportunities to secure better incomes outside the tea industry means there is a shortage of tea workers.

This is leading to radical changes in the way some tea companies are organising their operations, as they seek to ensure that workers have more ownership and control over their work and improved incomes.

Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos

Our aims

One of the ways to help tea workers to improve their incomes is through the creation of a new way of working called the ‘out grower’ model. The model is being trialed by estates in Sri Lanka and it allows employees to continue working on tea estates whilst also having control over plots of tea land.

Employees have responsibility for 1,500 – 2,000 tea bushes and sell the leaf back to the estate to make an additional income. This extra income can really help them to meet their key needs and go towards other important areas such as their children’s education.

Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos

Our impact

The Ethical Tea Partnership has been training workers on how to get the most out of their own plots of land through farmer field school programmes, which helped them to maximise their additional income.

Since being responsible for their own tea bushes, 60% of workers have made more money. Most of these are women, which is encouraging given that women are typically restricted to plucker roles on the estate – while men tend to secure the higher-paid, factory-based positions.

This new approach empowers women as they expand their skill-sets, and earn an additional income. It also gives them the flexibility to set their own working hours, making life easier for new mothers who are breastfeeding.

Meet Violetmerry

Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos

Violetmerry has also been taking part in the ‘out grower’ model, which helped provide extra income after her husband was unable to work:

“The ‘out grower’ plot is like our own land, so we will get the benefit of any improvements we make to it. I take care of it every day. I’m in charge, but my family help out too. My husband had an accident and broke his leg, so he hasn’t been able to work for a few months. I had to take time off to look after him, so it is very helpful to have extra income from this”.

As Eranga Egodawele, an estate manager says, the ‘out grower’ model is an essential financial incentive to keep workers involved and engaged in the industry. Eranga notes that:

“the ‘out grower’ model is definitely essential to the future viability of the estates because without it we are not going to improve the number of workers and we are not going to improve their sense of identity… They are basically entrepreneurs”.

We support workers to thrive through the ‘out grower’ model. Recognising their new responsibilities, we help farmers to understand how to run their tea bushes as a business. This has been life-changing for workers, who are now empowered to manage their finances.

Budding entrepreneurs, many of the workers have gone on to find other ways to add to their incomes – with some rearing animals to sell, and others farming vegetables for market.

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Find out more

Read about the other innovative programmes we’re running in Sri Lanka, which are changing people’s lives.