COVID-19 and its impact on Indian tea plantation labourers in Sri Lanka


Since the 1830s Indians have found labour on the many tea plantations in Sri Lanka. Tea and rubber were the country’s main export products for over a hundred years, during and after the period of British rule. Because of the employment opportunities and the need for labourers on the plantations, many Indians started as migrant workers on the island.

With this influx of Indian migrant workers, the Sri Lankan government raised concerns. They were afraid that if the population of Indian origin would become too large, they might cause difficulties to the native Sinhalese majority. In 1964 the Sirima-Shastri Pact established an agreement between the prime ministers of both countries on the status and opportunities of persons of Indian origin in Ceylon which reduced the number of people from Indian origin in Sri Lanka. The population of plantation workers lowered from five hundred thousand in the 1980s to currently one hundred and 50 thousand. Still, a considerable number of Indians are working on the tea plantations in Sri Lanka.

In the 1980s, the export and trade in crops and tea were decreasing massively and the apparel industry became the main export product in Sri Lanka. In this context, the Sri Lankan government dropped the support for the people working on the plantations after the garment industry became the main export product after 1980. The plantation estates, which were publicly owned, were given to private owners. Which resulted in the loss of many concessions from the government. Previously, the government was supplying essential commodities to tea plantation workers on a subsidized basis. As well as providing free medical care. However, the situation of the tea plantation workers worsened in many estates after the private sector took over the plantations. Leading to a more neglected status of the Indian-origin workers.

Especially today, with all industries in Sri Lanka being paralyzed with coronavirus also known as COVID-19, the tea and rubber industries are facing problems. The Sri Lankan government is taking massive steps to control coronavirus. The process of testing, isolation, and permissive treatment in the hospitals are being carried out. The World Health Organization has also praised Sri Lanka for its quick response and being more effective compared with other countries. The full implementation of curfew requires the Sri Lankan people to remain indoors. The high-risk zones, including Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Puttalam, Kandy and Jaffna are under indefinite police curfew. Moreover, restrictions are imposed on travels. DIG Ajith Rohana warned that effective from April 10th, any person who crosses district borders in violation of curfew will be compulsorily sent to quarantine centres for a 14-day quarantine admission. Cabinet approval is given to bring 33 Sri Lankans stranded at airports overseas due to coronavirus pandemic. These Sri Lankans will have to undergo 21-day quarantine upon arrival. Those with suspected COVID-19 symptoms are urged to call 1390, which is an emergency hotline providing free medical advice and assistance on COVID-19.