The tea industry in Sri Lanka brings in export earnings of over one billion euros every year – and yet many of the 300,000 people who work as pickers on the tea plantations cannot afford to eat, they live in houses without functioning toilets or running water.

Living conditions are precarious: The tea pickers claim that plantation owners have not adjusted wages during the country’s unprecedented economic crisis, which has seen prices of food, fuel and medicines soar. There are reports of supervisors refusing to pay due wages and verbal abuse.

Some of the world’s leading tea producers, including Tetley and Lipton, are now investigating working conditions on their suppliers’ plantations in Sri Lanka, according to a Guardian investigation. Two global trade certification systems, Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, are also conducting investigations after revealing that some workers on certified plantations are starved of food and living in appalling conditions.

Some have so little money that they have to skip meals and are forced to send their children to work. Lakshman Devanayagie, 33, told The Guardian: “Even if we pick good tea leaves, they say they’re not good enough and throw them away, or they cut our wages.” The picker Rangasamy Puwaneshkanthy lives with her husband and their three children in the hills above a tea plantation. She says she has had to borrow to pay for groceries and regularly skips meals, adding that she often forgoes sanitary pad purchases to buy groceries for her children. “We don’t know what to do. We work on the estate, but we have no wages. What should we do?”

The Rainforest Alliance said it was “deeply concerned by the allegations” and will investigate the matter. After that, the next steps will be decided. This could also lead to measures such as suspending or even canceling the existing certificates of the tea plantations.

A representative of the plantation companies, however, rejects all allegations: Lalith Obeyesekere, Secretary General of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, said that the workers are not only entitled to milk powder, flour and rice, but that investments are also being made to provide amenities such as housing, sanitary Improve facilities and hygiene facilities. He added that the industry is examining all possible options to mitigate the worst impact of the economic crisis on workers and that raising wages is a top priority for the association.

A National Union of Workers MP, Palani Digambaram, disagrees. He himself grew up on a tea plantation and knows that the people worked like “slaves, without adequate food and wages”.

Sources: “Guardian”, “World Food Program”