Tea is one of the most versatile beverages consumed widely after water. With its distinctive natural characteristics and multiple benefits provided from tea polyphenols (or natural plant compounds) assist as an herbal medicine in curing many contagious and mild sicknesses. Tea is of various types, categories and infused taste. Main categories of teas ranging from white, green, oolong and black and the various concoction of infusions all derive from the same Camellia Sinensis plant from which tea pluckers pluck the tea leaves and a bud to produce premium quality Ceylon tea loved by most in the world. Sri Lanka being the fourth largest tea producer in the world only behind China, India and Kenya. However most of those countries have adapted autonomous tea plucking methods through machineries to fulfill this task. However Sri Lanka’s tea has been able to retain its status quo in quality as it yet follows the traditional hand plucking method via traditional tea pluckers in tea estates to pluck hundreds of kilograms of tea daily.
Tea pluckers are an essential group of employed community that strengthen the most revenue generating economy of Sri Lanka. Whatever the high price and quality acquired by Ceylon tea is mainly due to the outgoing dedication, commitment, craftsmanship and skills put on field by the experienced tea pluckers who have spent most of their lives on the surroundings of hill country tea estates. They are a group of people who are employed at minimum wage, mostly living in shanties closer to the estate they work. Most of their basic needs are fulfilled by the estate owning company, access to water, sanitation facilities, electricity, crèches for children and medical are some of the main benefits provided for tea pluckers in Sri Lanka. Their generation is identified to derive from India who have been located in the hill country to work for estates. Generally they live well below the poverty line as most of their incomes are spent on daily groceries, medicine facilities and education for children. Whilst there are some estates that provide medical and education free of charge for its workers, yet certain tea pluckers have to spend their own earnings on these basic necessities. On average a tea plucker works on a single estate for over twenty and thirty years’ time, as they enter into this career at a very little age of sixteen and continue on the same job until over fifties, most of their lives are spent on plucking tender tea leaves and buds from the mesmerizing tea fields of the country.
Tea pluckers are mostly women and their daily routine begin early at around four or five as the dawning sun rise from the west merrily bringing cheer to the mildly moisten tea leaves on yards of tea plantations. Tea pluckers’ day begins by preparing tea, breakfast and lunch for the family, they usually take with them the breakfast and lunch packet for work and then they ready their children for nursery. Tea pluckers’ generally wears loose fitting clothes to tackle with the unexpected weather conditions at the fields, also covering their heads with a scarf like protective to be safe from scorching sun and humid falls. They tie the basket tight on to their backs to which they toss the leaves they pluck. And with complete best affordable gear they walk mostly with bare foot to tea estate they work for and begin plucking leaves from the bottom of the hill roughly around the time of eight in the morning.
Generally the tea bud and two adjacent leaves are plucked from every tree for which they use a long bamboo stick which the tea plucker place it in front of the trees so that she knows only the shoots that extend beyond that measurement must be plucked. It avoids plucking previous season’s leaves which are matured and does not produce required freshness in a good tea. This simple method allows tea pluckers to achieve a quality harvest. Tea pluckers’ daily target is to pluck eighteen kilograms of tea in order to receive the complete day wage agreed. If anything beyond that provides them with more earnings. They usually break for few minutes to enjoy the breakfast which they prepared from home and brought with them, mostly could be a roti with a sambal. And they begin work and continue up until about noon before they break for about two hours lunch break. As they walk through the fields they are mostly beaten by leeches. However they continue with their work despite the toughness of combating against the weather in order to earn their daily wage to feed the family. A tea pluckers’ day ends at the estate by about five in the evening as dusk arrives and they return home for the kids who are eagerly waiting to see and spend time with them. They prepare dinner, enjoy the meal as a family and goes to sleep early to continue the same routine the next day.
For all these years the facilities and living standards of tea pluckers have been miserable and not taken care of by the authorities. However gradually the well renowned and respected tea giants in the country are now driving more concern on the well-being of their employees from estate to white collar job positions, providing them with all basic necessities, their overall well-being in terms of medication and access to basic needs and wants. Sri Lankan tea pluckers’ community have now produced doctors. Lawyers and many other professions as a result of education provided to the children of these communities. Times are changing and as the demand for tea pluckers increases the country also experiences a shortage of labour for this traditional craftsmanship as the newer generation of this community are moving ahead from embracing their parents’ career and driving towards urban areas in search of better paid jobs.
Tea plucking is an authentic profession that requires experience and perseverance as the quality of the tea is mostly remnant on the goodness of the leaves that are pluck. Tea pluckers are a community that adds colour and beauty to the world of tea enriching the handmade goodness of authentic Ceylon tea winning hearts of worldwide tea aficionados.