“I apply castor oil to my fingers and hold them over the fire. That is the medicine. For two days, I can pluck tea. After that, the pain comes back. So I treat my fingers again with castor oil” said tea plucker Perumal Danalechchumy, forty-nine years old.
Danalechchumy has five children; three of them go to school, and the other two work in Colombo. She was sixteen years old when she began plucking tea. Her fingers resemble the drought-parched earth – filled with cracks. The tea stains her hands, like blood.
“Plucking with these injuries is really painful. If you wear gloves, you can’t pluck. What’s to be done. I have to keep plucking, despite the pain.” Nirmala says. In some of the estates, the management discourages workers from wearing protective gloves, as it damages the tea leaves. Due to pain, some of the pluckers wear gloves in secret, despite this. Some others sew makeshift cloth coverings for their fingers.
If a plucker works for an average of thirty years, these injuries become permanent. This makes their mobility difficult later in life.
“With these injuries, I can’t even wash clothes. Still, that’s not so bad. The worst is that I can’t even eat with my hands properly – my fingers throb when I try to mix the rice.” M Gnanasothy has three school-going children.
To produce one kilogramme of tea, five thousand tea-leaves have to be plucked, according to Badulla Hindagala estate, Factory Officer Muthuarachchi.
“On average, Sri Lanka exports seven million kilogrammes of tea for a week. However nobody talks about the way this work injures the pluckers,” Muthuarachchi said. These pluckers spend three-quarters of their lives plucking tea – yet the management does not give them any medicine to treat their hands. They do not receive any compensation for these injuries.