Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Just Tea: An Interview with Janaka Biyanwila

A month back at the 2007 Conference of the International Association for Feminist Economics in Bangkok, I met Dr. Janaka Biyanwila, a father and teacher of Organisational and Labour Studies at the University of Western Australia in Perth. He was awarded a prize at the conference for a paper on unions and women tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka. The contest he won is named in honour of Rhonda Williams, who was an African-American activist and economist.

I had the opportunity during a break between sessions to record an interview with Janaka, which I have transcribed below.

Me: Congratulations on winning the Rhonda Williams Prize.

Janaka: Thank you.

Me: Could you tell me about the paper you submitted to win this prize?

Janaka: The paper was about tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka. I was particularly interested in looking at trade unions in the tea plantations. The women at these tea plantations are one of the most marginalized and exploited groups of workers in Sri Lanka. Tea is a very important export commodity for Sri Lanka and has been for over 150 years, which is part of the colonial legacy. The conditions of the tea workers who live in these plantations have changed very little over the years. Even though these workers have been organized since the 1930s, there has been little change in the living and working conditions in the plantations. It’s about much more than the trade union strategy, though. It’s about plantations in general, the kind of productions systems there, because they have maintained these conditions of poverty. My intervention was to look at why these trade unions are not pushing for better conditions and livelihoods for these women.

What I discovered was that even though the dominant trade unions are mostly male-biased, patriarchal, bureaucratic unions, there are some unions that are willing to link up with more activist organizations and to mobilize women much more than the traditional, party-dominated trade unions that exist in the plantations. One of the things that I focused on in my paper was this new network that has come up linking tea plantation workers across the globe, which started out of the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai. They started a network promoting what’s called an International Tea Day, which is December 14, to raise awareness about tea plantation workers across the globe, who are living in similar conditions.

Me: Could you describe those conditions in detail? What’s so bad about them?

Janaka: First of all, in terms of wages, their wages are just above bare minimum. In terms of daily wages, they make less than $2 per day. That’s only wages, but there is a whole regimentation of work too. These women are not only burdened by household work and wage work, but they are also burdened with communal, religious work, so there is a triple burden these women are experiencing. In terms of living conditions, housing and education are key issues the trade unions have been fighting for. They still live in these barrack-style line rooms, which are almost 10 feet by 10 feet small rooms where whole families live next to one another. These line rooms are separated from one another. They are surrounded by these tea plantations, cut off from other workers in other estates. So there is a bit isolation happening. With that, the plantation owners have never provided enough infrastructure. There’s lack of access to water, lack of access to electricity, and lack of access to transport.

Me: What about healthcare?

Janaka: Healthcare is another major area, definitely. In terms of poverty conditions, poverty has increased in the plantations in the last ten years. Malnutrition has also increased.

The tea plantations were nationalized in Sri Lanka from 1972 to about 1992, and in 1992 they were privatised. But the real process of nationalization only lasted from 1975 to about 1977, because from 1977 onwards Sri Lanka shifted to a neo-liberal, export-oriented economic strategy. So the privatisation of plantations was supported by the major trade unions because they were under political parties and the parties pushed privatisation. But in terms of worker conditions, this has had limited impact on improving their status.

Me: So for people living in the United States, Australia, or other places, what can we do besides feel guilty while drinking tea?

Janaka: It’s not about stopping tea drinking. Feeling guilty is OK because that might be an emotion that initiates some interest and desire to intervene in what’s going on in the whole global production chain around tea. All tea-producing countries, which are mostly in the South, have similar conditions. So one of the things we can do is to struggle for worker rights across the board in many areas, but in particular areas of tea-growing parts of the world. There is a website called justtea.org, which promotes something similar to fair trade practices.

Me: Through this website you can get information about solidarity activities?

Janaka: That’s one level. The other level is also trade union action. If you are linked with any trade unions or work organizations, it is good to find solidarity and share information with tea plantation workers because they need that solidarity, even just knowing that you in America are aware of what’s happening to tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, and Africa.

Me: Where I live in Houston there is a focus on maquiladora workers along the US-Mexican border. I think it is worth connecting those struggles with ones in other places.

Janaka: Definitely. In Sri Lanka, we have similar kinds of industrial zones, which are called Free Trade Zones. That’s another area I have been interested in studying, one of my research areas. Free Trade Zones are again anti-union, don’t allow worker rights. Nevertheless, these women have struggled and they have labour organizations. And one of the most innovative things one of these organizations has done is to have exchange programs with women plantation workers. So these young workers coming to these factories from rural areas are experiencing factory work for the first time, but at the same time, because of the way they are organizing, they are getting to share their experiences with other women and also understand what other women workers are going through. So I think these kinds of work exchange programs or awareness-raising programs are so important for building a broad solidarity for the struggle for worker rights.

Me: Thanks so much for talking with me. Is there anything else you want to say.

Janaka: Thank you so much. I’m glad you are here to push the struggle for worker rights and social justice.

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