A note on child labour in plantations

S. Jegan Prakash

Child labour is a burning issue all over the word. This can be found in  Sri Lanka too. In Sri Lanka child labour exists mainly in two areas; the coastal areas of Sri Lanka and the upcountry. The mysterious case of Jeewarani (13) and Kamala (14) from Nuwara Eliya who were found dead in a canal in Colombo 07 while working as domestic servantsimages in the houses of two wealthy families in Colombo shows the gravity of the problem of child labour in plantation areas. As a student following a special degree in Sociology, I am doing my dissertation on child labour in plantations in Sri Lanka. There are various factors that motivated me to do my research on this particular topic. Among them, the main reason is my personal experience of being employed as a child labourer during my childhood. The next factor is that I come from a rubber estate in the Kurunegala District. In this article, I have mainly attempted to share some ideas on the current situation of child labour in plantation areas.

For the plantation child the family environment is hardly conducive for his mental or psychological growth. Illiteracy among parents, low economic standards, superstition, outdated cultural practices and norms, congested housing system and other conditions prevent the creation of an environment conducive for the future betterment of the child. Further, addiction to alcohol and constant conflict among parents, abuses on children, over use of televisions, cultural barriers on girls are additional causes that disturb the peace in the family, which has an adverse impact on the education of the children. Due to this reason, most of the children lead an unhappy life within their families. Child rights and child participation are almost unknown subjects in the plantation setup. In this backdrop, creating a conducive environment within the family is vital for the future development of the plantation child. This should be done with the support of parents and elders in the plantation community.

All the factors mentioned above influence children in plantations to abandon schooling and become employed. When the parents do not show any interest on the education of their children, spontaneously children drop out of school. Since most of the parents themselves lack formal education, they do not know the value of education. As a result of this, children in plantations start to work at early ages. Some parents think that their obligation is over after sending their children to school. They do not monitor their children’s activities or progress in school. The common complaint made by the teachers in plantation schools concerns the lack of interest and enthusiasm that parents’ show towards their children’s education.

In plantation areas, the other major problem is addiction to alcohol and drugs. Most of the males are used to having liquor every evening. In some families both, the mother and father are addicted to alcohol. Often the husband quarrels with his wife and batters her and the children after taking alcohol. Since a patriarchal system exists in plantation areas, there is a notion that wives must bear all the tortures and humiliation caused by husbands. I can recall a Tamil saying my mother often says “Kallanalum kanvan than pullanalum purusan than”. It means even though it is stone or grass it is husband.

It is a well-known fact that people in plantation areas live in line rooms, which are a chain of small identical houses. The living space in these line rooms is not more than a verandah, an eight by ten living room, and a kitchen. Still many houses in the plantations do not have electricity. The average family consists of about six or seven members. They live within a small space insufficient even for two members. These living environments directly affect children’s education and the children ultimately to drop out of school owing to the lack of facilities to study at home.

It is very important to discuss about the resources available (or unavailable) in plantations for children. Most of the children get their primary education from the state schools which lack basic facilities. These estate schools have grades one to five. Usually, there are less than three teachers including the principal in these schools. In many schools, the buildings are in dilapidated conditions and a playground cannot be found. In many occasions, the maximum qualification of teachers appointed to these schools is passing A/L examination with three ‘S’ passes. The lack of physical and human resources in schools lead children to stop schooling and look for jobs.

Overall, the major cause of child labour could be identified as poverty. Studies that have been done so far have shown that poverty is playing a key role in deciding the range and rate of child labour in plantations. It is an obvious fact that the income of plantation workers is inadequate to live under this economic circumstance. Since they are not aware of family planning system there are many children in families in plantations. Therefore, most of the estate workers are not able to fulfill the basic needs of their children with the meager income they get from estate management. It is certainly an unavoidable argument that plantation workers are exploited by every sides of the administration. In recent past, the estate workers went on a strike requesting the government to bolster their salary to Rs. 500 per day. Surely, it was a reasonable demand. However, in the end trade unions took part in several rounds of discussions promising the innocent estate workers that they would help them to win their salary increment and cheated the people by getting some personal rewards from the administrative bodies. Politicians are responsible for the insufficient income of estate workers as all the trade unions are in the power of political parties in the upcountry. It is sad to say that these politicians are not working for the people who have elected them after coming to power. All these are factors relevant to the financial side of a family have compelled the children to abandon their education in order to work and support their family’s income. Most of the time, the elder child of the family has to bear the greatest burden of earning for the family.

As their income is not enough to meet their basic needs, female members of the family in plantations have started to migrate to Middle East countries as domestic workers. When they leave their country, they entrust their children to the care of their husbands. However, the husband fails to take care of the children, and as a result of this the female child of the family has to shoulder all the responsibilities towards the family members. Since she has to do all the household activities previously done by her mother, she cannot pay attention to her studies. This is how most girls become child labourers. After they become child labourers they face numerous psychosocial problems in the working environment especially being girl child labourers.

The intervention of government in creating an appropriate and a better living environment for children in plantations is very less. Children in plantations are known as “children who are groomed to be employed as domestic workers” and therefore never remembered on Universal Children’s Day. Plantation children are never considered as individual persons with human dignity. They have no voice within their family, community or in the outer world, and remain children whose social mobility is heavily restricted.

I remember that my brother used to be very clever in learning things and how he earned a good name among our school teachers. But unfortunately he was unable to tolerate the tortures, assaulting and blames of my father under intoxication. Eventually, he decided to come to my aunt’s place in Colombo and began to work in a tea factory at the age of 13.

A change is needed in the attitudes of the people towards children in plantations. It is impossible to improve the living condition of children in plantation without taking efficient measures with the corporation of the parents. Parents must be made aware of the importance of childhood and education. It is a duty of government officials to take swift actions in order to curb the usage of drugs which destroy the future of children in plantations.

Now it is time to think of the children in plantations with the purpose of creating a more wholesome environment for them to live, grow and become citizens who can bring pride to our motherland. Therefore, my earnest ambition is to work for the wellbeing of children in plantations who have been neglected by the regional and national policy makers of the country.

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  • ruwan kumara  On June 24, 2011 at 10:41 am

    i;m very happy about your research prakash becouse i’m also doing this research for my disertation. i’m a student who has been studing in sociology of u of pera.i want to contact you. if can please email me.my address is ruwaness@yahoo.com.

  • socioscope  On June 24, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Dear Ruwan, you can get in touch with Prakash on this e-mail address; masterjeganprakash@gmail.com. Thanks for reading our blog!

  • maths  On April 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Dear friend you topic is very useful to the plantation community, researchers and others who want to now about plantation. The are very rare to evolve our communities issues.

  • Serginho  On June 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    It is a excellent dissertation. Thanks for writing this. I will read again and again .

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