On 3 December 2021, the UN’s expert on Contemporary forms of Slavery, Special Rapporteur Tomoya Obokata, published the preliminary findings from his recent visit to Sri Lanka. Whilst he acknowledged some of the progress that Sri Lanka had made regarding contemporary slavery, he also raised serious concerns about living and working conditions for some on the island. The problems are particularly pronounced in rural areas, and disproportionately affect women, children, and ethnic minorities. Obokata is preparing a full report to be published in 2022; in the meantime, here are five of his most concerning findings.
The living conditions on Sri Lanka’s plantations remain squalid
Contemporary forms of slavery disproportionately affect the Malayaha Tamil community. Malayaha Tamils, sometimes called hill-country or Indian-Origin Tamils, are largely the descendants of workers brought to Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands by the British in the nineteenth century, mostly to work on tea, coffee, and rubber plantations. As of 2016, nearly a million Malayaha Tamils still resided on the plantations. Over 320,000 are employed as plantation workers, mainly women.
Six years ago, we reported on the squalid conditions present in the ‘line houses’ – often just a single room – where the majority of Malayaha Tamils live. According to a 1994 government survey, 42% of houses lacked sufficient water, 62% had no latrines, and 64% had inadequate lighting and ventilation. In December 2021, Obokata was ‘appalled’ to see the ‘inhumane and degrading’ conditions which continue to exist in the line houses. The Rapporteur was told that between 5 and 10 people are typically forced to share tiny spaces of 10×12 feet with several families to one latrine, in residences which often lack windows, running water, adequate kitchens, and in some cases electricity. It seems that despite several projects by the Sri Lankan and Indian governments, many Malayaha Tamils still live in terrible conditions, over 25 years after the government’s survey.
Tea plantation workers are still paid a pittance for back-breaking work
Obokata highlights that Sri Lanka’s monthly minimum wage, despite being raised in August 2021, still does not meet the rising cost of living on the island. While the daily wage for plantation workers is Rs.1000 (approximately £3.75), this wage is contingent on plantation workers meeting ‘targets’ set by private plantation companies. These targets require workers to pluck 18-22kg of tea leaves per day. Obokata says women have to work twice as long as men to reach these targets. If not met, workers have their wages significantly reduced, meaning that the over 320,000 Malayaha Tamils who work on plantations lack a stable daily income.
Most plantation workers are over the age of 50, and many who had retired are forced to return to plantation work, as they have not received their government retirement funds. This forces older Malayaha Tamils to perform physically demanding jobs without adequate social protection, healthcare access, or sick pay, and annual leave. This week, the Plantation Ministry has stated that the Ministry, in cooperation with plantation companies, may grant plantation workers some land to cultivate their own crops. But while growing food may help to partially mitigate the rising cost of staple goods, Malayaha Tamils are already working long hours of hard labour in tea plantations. The focus should be on ensuring that this work is paid fairly – that is, sufficient to provide a decent livelihood.
Physical and sexual abuse is reported in many industries
In industries predominantly occupied by women, the Special Rapporteur raises concern over the physical, verbal, and sexual abuse that has been reported, especially by women and girls employed as domestic or sex workers. Obokata describes the domestic sphere as the ‘least regulated’ workplace in Sri Lanka, as he found that normal labour protections such as sick leave and annual leave provision do not seem to apply. Many are denied minimum wage or even subsistence, and there are reports of physical and sexual abuse. Sex workers of all gender identities and sexual orientation are often exploited and abused, including by law enforcement officials.
Malayaha Tamils, who are overrepresented in many of these industries, also face discrimination based on their ethnicity. According to Obokata, they are often unable to report the abuses they suffer to the authorities. There is a lack of information on avenues to seek justice or remedies for the violations of their rights in the Tamil language. Those who do attempt to report abuses are often forced to file complaints in Sinhala, a language most do not understand, by Sinhala-speaking police officers, in spite of the status of Tamil as an official language.
Micro-financing companies devastate rural women
It has long been reported that micro-financing companies remain a ‘debt trap’ for many in Sri Lanka. In 2016, the Microfinance Act was passed, which provided some regulation for the sector. However, Obokata’s findings reveal the terrible effect that these companies continue to have on many women. This especially affects women-headed families in poor rural areas, such as in the Northern Province, which was devastated during the war and continues to be one of the poorest provinces.
These women, who often lack opportunities to earn an income, may be forced to rely on micro-finance loans which typically require weekly interest payments of 20-30%. The contracts are often written in languages the women do not understand. According to the Rapporteur, high levels of debt have reportedly led over 200 women to commit suicide in recent years. Other women are forced into ‘debt bondage’, resorting to sex or domestic work to repay debts; still others are asked for sexual favours by micro-financing agents in return for relaxing repayments.
Troublingly, the Special Rapporteur heard reports from civil society that some security personnel may be connected with these micro-financing companies, and that these individuals may ensure complaints filed with the police reach a dead end. The government informed Obokata that new legislation was being introduced that would create a regulatory body for the industry. It is vital that this body is adequately staffed and resourced, and that it investigates any possible connections between security personnel and micro-financing companies, so abuses can be properly dealt with.
Private businesses are becoming militarised
Finally, Obokata describes a concerning development that has been taking place in many private businesses, including tea plantations and garment factories. These businesses have been recruiting retired military officials. The Special Rapporteur believes that this ‘militarisation’ of the workforce has created a ‘culture of fear’ among workers as the presence of former generals means that employees are too intimidated to report abuses. Obokata also raises concerns about regular harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, trade unions, and civil society organisations and shrinking civic space in Sri Lanka.
Militarisation is not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka; in the North and East, there is a huge concentration of soldiers, who are intimately involved in many areas of daily life in the region. However, this report serves to emphasise the increasing militarisation of the rest of the country, which has ramped up since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the Presidency in 2019. Dozens of military officials have been appointed to key governmental positions and Presidential Taskforces, and the army has led Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response. Obokata’s findings appear to show that the impact of increasing militarisation is being acutely felt by more and more communities on the island.
Read about the militarisation of Sri Lanka’s schools here.