Stassen Natural Foods (Pvt) Ltd (Idulgashinna Bio Tea Garden)

At Stassen Bio Estate, sustainability is not a trend, but an integral way of life.

A Voice for Tea Workers in Sri Lanka

7009 Stassen Women Housing 870
Women from the community who participated in the Housing Scheme, a Fairtrade Premium project implemented by Stassen Natural Foods.
Image © Ola Höiden

Tea is an essential part of the economy in Sri Lanka employing over a million people. Recently, effects of soil erosion, climate change, and the rights of workers have pushed sustainability to the forefront. However at Stassen Bio Estate, sustainability is not a trend, but an integral way of life;a focus since 1992, when Stassen Bio Estate decided to become a Fairtrade certified plantation.

Prior to Fairtrade’s involvement, Rajaratnam Gnanasekeran, manager of one of the Stassen Estates and Chairman of Sri Lanka’s Fairtrade producer association, described an environment where the workers operated under both fear and obligation. Their voice remained largely unheard, resulting in a disconnect between the needs of the workers and the management’s objectives.

Motivated to improve

The motivation to become involved with Fairtrade was twofold: to address the pressing needs of the workers, and the requests from buyers. In order to adhere to the Fairtrade Standards and principles, changes had to occur. Initially there was resistance, but increased awareness and training helped with this transition, slowly the workers’ voice began to be heard.

The rights of the workers were not the only challenge that Stassen Bio Estate faced, another was accessible education. Education is a right of every Sri Lanka citizen, however the nearest school for the Stassen Bio Estate was several kilometres away. This made it extremely difficult to access, and almost impossible for the younger children, as it would involve a long, walk on rough roads.

The problem was further compounded with no available public transportation and the plantation, itself, was financially unable to support the cost for a private bus. Providing accessible education was extremely important to the workers at Stassen Bio Estate, so much so, that the Fairtrade Premium Committee decided to allocate the Premium to purchase a school bus.

“The roads were very bad and school children could not go to school,” said Gnanasekeran. “And now with the premium money they bought a bus and all the children are able to go to school and it’s almost hundred percent, nobody stays.” Today, all children six and up, are taken from their home to the school by bus and brought back to their homes each evening.

7000 Stassen Children Learning Computers 870
Fairtrade Premium is frequently invested in education by the workers of Stassen.
Image © Ola Höiden

Valuing the voice of workers

It is the Fairtrade Premium Committee, made up of the workers themselves, not management, which is perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of Fairtrade. The Committee ensures that the top concerns are addressed and that the workers and their families (and the community) receive an immediate benefit. This democratic system has provided an additional voice to the workers, where they can vote to decide where their hard earned money will be spent. It has empowered them to not only communicate their needs but seek out solutions.

“It is at the Fairtrade Premium Committee where males and females, perhaps for the first time, all sit together at one table,” said Gnanasekeran. “Everyone voices their ideas, and they are all considered equal. It is only in this Fairtrade system that they are given this opportunity.”

The Fairtrade Premium has made a significant difference on several Sri Lanka plantations from providing accessible education to building and supplying a general store. Today, the situation at Stassen Bio Estate is quite different with both workers and management working together, discussing their problems and finding solutions.

“The workers attitudes have changed, they are no longer afraid, they are happy. And they have no fear now, they’re able to go meet with management directly and talk to them,” said Gnanasekeran.

Fairtrade certification and the Fairtrade Premium Committee has empowered the employees. The workers feel that that they are no longer just laborers, but are a vital part of an organization.

In 2014, the Stassen Bio Estate was recognized at the Fairtrade Awards as the top hired labour organization in the Asia Pacific region.

This story was first added to our website on 05 March 2015.