Bonded labour is widespread in tea plantations in Sri Lanka. Dalits constitute 83 percent of the total of 3.6 million workers that live in the plantation communities. Most of them are Tamil speaking Hindus and descendents of plantation workers from South India brought to the country in the 19th century by British colonizers. The estimated number of Indian Origin Tamils in Sri Lanka is 1.3 million and nearly 80 percent of them are concentrated in the plantation sector (1).
A majority of these initial Indian immigrants to Sri Lanka were Tamils from the most impoverished regions in South India, where they were predominantly landless and poverty-stricken agricultural workers occupying the lowest position in the existing caste hierarchy.
Studies have revealed that the prevailing caste system of the Tamil plantation community in Sri Lanka is more or less a continuation of the South Indian caste system adapted to suit the situation in the plantations. It is usually higher caste people who supervise the lower caste workers in the estates.
‘Casteless or Caste-blind? Dynamics of Concealed Caste Discrimination, Social Exclusion and Protest in Sri Lanka’ by Kalinga Tudor Silva, P.P. Sivapragasam, Paramsothy Thanges. Published by: International Dalit Solidarity Network and Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, 2009.