Thai Pongal at the Liberty Roundabout: Estate workers vow to fight for their rights | Sunday Observer

Thai Pongal at the Liberty Roundabout: Estate workers vow to fight for their rights

A group of activists came together to share Pongal as they stood in solidarity against what is dubbed as ‘modern day slavery’ to demand Rs. 1,000 as minimum wage for estate workers.

The protest took place at the Liberty Round About on Tuesday (15) as the country celebrated Thai Pongal- the harvest festival.

“What other day is better than the Thai Pongal day to demand the rights of the people?” asked Gautham, a lawyer and activist dealing with social justice issues in Badulla.

His wife Ishwari, had woken up early that morning to prepare the Pongal meal that was given to all the protesters who joined the movement. The dish was aptly served on paper plates with a cup of tea.

The peaceful demonstration is one of the many that will lead to a major protest march scheduled to take place on Wednesday (23).

The Sunday Observer learns that 37 organisations will take part in the march, starting at the Gas Paha Junction and towards the Fort Railway Station from 3 pm. Hundreds of estate workers are expected to participate in the event. Several protests will be held in different parts of the country until the issue is resolved. The protesters at the Liberty Round About made statements and demonstrated holding placards reading, “Ceylon Tea is Blood Tea”, “Raise Wages, The Auspicious Time is Now”, and urged citizens, “Don’t Just Drink, Think!”.

Estate workers have been urging the authorities to increase their basic wage, for a couple of years, with a number of protests in different parts of the country, but to no avail.

The most recent of these events was a hunger strike by a group of youths, near the Colombo Fort Railway Station, last month.

The strike was called off when other organisations pledged support to help them win their demands. The youths said, the strike will be relaunched in an ‘organized manner’.

“Estate workers are grossly underpaid. They are not even treated as equal citizens in this country,” said Shreen Abdul Saroor of Women’s Action Network.

She said that plantation workers are not benefited by the national budget, which is highly problematic.

“This means their basic rights such as health, education and houses, are all tied to the company they work for. Starting with the Constitution they are discriminated,” Saroor said adding, “This is modern day slavery.”

In most parts of the country, she said, women in the estates work from 6 am to 6 pm which shows that the plight of the women is worse than of the men who get off work much early.

According to Executive Director, Institute of Social Development (ISD), (a Non-Governmental Organisation based in Kandy), P. Muthulingam, the struggle is not only to increase the minimum daily wage- which is normally a little over Rs. 500 - but also to improve their overall living conditions.

He said, the stigma attached to the industry is driving youth away from working in estates, who find it more enjoyable to work in vegetable gardens, instead. He said in 1992 there were 360,000 workers in the estates, but now the number has reduced drastically to 160,000.

“The continuation of the current condition would cripple the industry that brings in billions of dollars as revenue to the country,” he said.

A tea plucker from the Ratnapura district N. Raman, 59, told the Sunday Observer that he does not wish his children to be engaged in the same trade as he.

“I encourage them to work in shops in the town. Why should they suffer as we do or as their forefathers did?” Raman asked. The plight of estate workers has gone unnoticed by the authorities for many years. Raman said they are approached by politicians only when an election is round the corner, and soon after forgotten.

“We don’t have a roof of our own. Our families can be thrown out of the line room at any time. The Rs. 1,000 minimal wage will change our lives to a great extent,” he said.