As the global superpower, America is unique in that it has the hard power to get people to do what it wants, as well as soft power – to get people to want what it does.
The American Dream drew large numbers of migrants to its shore in the early 20th. Century. This cultural diversity is credited for the growth of media, movies, television, literature and the arts, combined with consumerism and mass manufacturing to power it on the world stage post the Second World War.
American inventions have contributed to advancing the tea industry – tea bags, iced tea and instant tea were all first produced in the USA.
The images broadcast from Ferguson, Missouri, and the media commentary and analysis has been a startling reminder, to those of us outside the US, that gains made by African Americans through the Civil Rights Act exactly 50 years ago are rolling back. They seem to have been hardest hit by the great depression of 2008, plus a combination of cross border immigration and tacit neglect by state governments.
America and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) share a common history of colonial plantation agriculture. In the 1850’s over 3 million slaves worked in the cotton fields of the Southern States. In Ceylon, British Colonialists had brought Indian labour for the rapidly expanding tea plantations; eventually they would number about 1 million. Though not technically slave labour, they were a stateless people who lived and worked in harsh conditions while their work contributed to the success of tea businesses in the UK and USA.
In 1950 plantation workers formed themselves into a political party coinciding with the beginnings of the African American Civil rights movement, and the first steps to resolution of their statelessness took place in 1964, which was the same year that the Civil Rights Act was passed in the USA. In the years since, the welfare and living conditions of workers on the tea plantations of Sri Lanka have improved, as has their access to education, healthcare and employment opportunities. Deep rooted social and cultural practises could however be a barrier to their progress.
Textile manufacturing had all but disappeared in the USA up to about 2011 when prices reached historical heights due to a global cotton shortfall, triggering a revival. The tea industry in Sri Lanka has grown steadily over the past 50 years and currently contributes about 2% to GDP. Increased wages, better living conditions and welfare result in higher costs of production while prices remain low.
As a developing country, Sri Lankans are not really concerned now about where they come from, but define themselves in terms of where they want to get to. In this sense the plantation worker in Sri Lanka is no longer marginalised, having equal opportunity to get ahead based on talent and attitude.
This poses a new set of challenges for the tea industry in terms of human resource since Ceylon Tea depends on the expertise of the pluckers to select two leaves and a bud for its artisanal, orthodox tea manufacture. How the industry adapts to this will define its future course.