Tackling child labour in Sri Lanka

The way back to school

Saddis Kumar's mother works in a tea plantation in Sri Lanka. His father is unable to work due to a health problem. Saddis was about to fall into child labour, but then the ILO intervened. Read his story.

Feature | Colombo, Sri Lanka | 31 May 2015
Saddis Kumar is getting ready for school
RATNAPURA DISTRICT (ILO News) – Every morning Saddis Kumar puts on his uniform, carefully combs his hair, straightens his tie, fills his water bottle and says goodbye to his parents. With all that done, the 13-year-old boy is ready for school.

It wasn’t always like this. Saddis only recently returned to school after a two-year lapse.

“I will come to school again and I don’t want to be out of school. I like to come to school,” he says.

Saddis and his family live on the Rilhena Estate, a vast tea plantation in Ratnapura District, in Sri Lanka’s Sabaragamuwa Province. There are about 500 workers on the estate, producing the world-famous Dilmah tea.

Saddis’ stepmother, Ambiga Kumar Meena, is one of the tea pickers. She’s also the family’s only income earner, because two years ago Saddis’ father had major medical surgery and has been unable to work since. After that the 39-year-old woman had to work even harder, to pay medical bills, while also looking after Saddis’ younger half-sister. Without enough parental support, the young boy started playing truant and eventually dropped out of school completely.

Unfortunately, Saddis is not an isolated case.

“The indicators of children’s educational attainment and health in the plantation sector are lower than the national average,” said Hiroshi Gunatilake, Programme Assistant of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Social Protection and Child Labour Project. “We have seen children not going regularly to school finally end up in child labour, and we want to prevent this from happening.”

The Social Protection and Child Labour Project began in June 2014, with support from the ILO/Japan Multi-bilateral Programme. ILO specialists trained the staff on the Rilhena Estate in social protection and child rights. They also taught them how to collect and analyse data so that they could keep track of the child labour situation.

It didn’t take long for the newly-trained welfare officers on the estate to spot Saddis. During a visit to his family they talked to his parents and concluded the young boy was very vulnerable to falling into child labour. Action was needed.

“We enrolled the child in our school about two months ago. We are observing him and intend to bring him on par with others in his age group,” explained Wilma Perera, Welfare Officer of Rilhena Estate.

Saddis Kumar has returned to school thanks to the ILO's Social Protection and Child Labour Project
At school, Saddis enjoys a free breakfast. In class he enthusiastically answers his teacher’s questions. A smile has returned to his face.

The child labour project already boasts quite a few successful stories like Saddis’. As well as helping existing child labourers with education and health care, the project also focuses on prevention – for example by teaching better family budget management so that children don’t have to earn.

But bringing children back into school solves only part of the problem. The bigger question for Ms Gunatilake and her colleagues is how to make sure the students complete their education.

To address this, the project team started working with Sri Lanka’s social partners - workers’ and employers’ organizations – and the partnership has already produced positive improvements. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Sabaragamuwa has asked its members not to use child labour, is sponsoring meetings and workshops on child labour issues, and is providing children with school bags and stationery.

Plantation children
“If we can bring all the partners like the private sector, the government, and some other social partners together, we’ll be able to give plantation children proper education,” Ms Gunatilake said. “If we can give them proper education, definitely they will not be vulnerable to child labour.”

With the help from the ILO, Balangoda Plantations PLC, another plantation in Sabaragamuwa Province, has established an activity centre in Pettiagalla. The centre provides plantation workers with training in sewing, paper cutting and book binding, to help them make extra money and so keep their children out of child labour.

“From that training I started my own business,” 29-year-old Selvaraj Selvamalar explained. “I received many benefits from the project. I would like to thank ILO for this. ILO needs to continue its work in our plantation.” Her business has grown so well that she has moved into town and now sends her children to a better school.

According to Anil de Mel, General Manager of Balangoda Plantations PLC, as well as helping workers’ households manage their existing budgets better, “we are also trying to generate more income for the family. So that part is also being covered with the new programme that just started with the ILO.”

In 2010, the Sri Lankan Government made a commitment to eliminate the worst forms of child labour in the country by 2016. Since then, the Government and the ILO have been working together towards this goal, and the new child labour project is intended to build on existing achievements. The project has boosted confidence that the Government will reach its 2016 goal.

“We took, with the ILO support, the new initiatives, what we call ‘child labour free zones’. It means we mainstreamed or integrated the child labour concerns into district or sectoral development plans,” said Ananda Wimalaweera, Senior Assistant Secretary of Labour and Labour Relations of Sri Lanka.

“We are optimistic that we will reach our target as we planned with ILO support.”