The ‘1000’ Movement | Sunday Observer

The ‘1000’ Movement

 Protesters on the march
Protesters on the march

When Wasantha Kumar, a father of three from Matale, heard from a friend about the ‘1000 Movement’ he immediately knew that it was a struggle he wanted to be a part of.

The protest demanding the increase of the daily wage of estate workers to Rs. 1000 is a very personal quest for Kumar. This is because his late parents slaved in the scorching sun, thunder and rain to earn Rs. 325 (then) each. Ten years since his parents’ demise, not much has changed. Today, an estate worker earns an average of Rs. 500 per day.

Living conditions

For years their struggle was isolated. Their cries were unheard, and if heard were used as political tools to promise better living standards in return for an innocent vote. Elections were held, politicians won but the estate workers’ lives remained unchanged.

“My mother used to wake up early in the morning. She made rotis for breakfast. My father and mother will have two rotis each before heading to the tea estate they worked in,” Kumar recalls.

They lived in a line room. Kumar’s family still does. Few of his siblings are still working in the estates, but Kumar moved to Pettah and started a garment shop.

During the evenings his mother would return home, make a quick lunch for her family, and return to pluck tea leaves.

“We lived in dire living conditions. Families in the line room had to share toilets. We didn’t have running water and had to walk for miles to catch a bus,” Kumar said adding, “Estates were not safe places. Often someone would be bitten by a snake or attacked by wasps. The life of estate workers has not changed for about 200 years.”

Believing that a fight was the only way to make a change, Kumar and his friend took part in the protest march held from Gasworks Junction to the Bo Tree Junction in Pettah on Wednesday (23) afternoon.

About a thousand people from various backgrounds thronged the streets causing traffic jams. They held up black flags, with small black stickers depicting ‘1000 movement’ stuck on their faces, carryied placards and shouted slogans.

Apitaoni- Ekdahak, Dinakawetupa- Ekdahak (We want 1000 - daily wage of 1000 they chanted.

The protesters represented 25 organisations. Among them were Eksath Kamkaru Sammelanaya, Centre for Estate Workers, the newly launched Jana Anasaka, and the Inter-University Students’ Federation.

Students of the University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, painted hashtags on peoples’ faces in red and white.

Twenty-five-year-old Madavie Senerath who is from the same university said that she walked with the protesters that day to win the rights of a community not very different to hers. “This is not just an estate workers’ fight. This is our fight. I know how girls my age live in these line rooms. We can’t allow them to live this way always,” she told the Sunday Observer.

They weren’t the only ones who protested demanding the basic wage of Rs. 1,000 that day. Thirty other protests were launched in different parts of the country, including Hatton, Demodara, Badulla, Matugama and Matale. These protests are the first of a series of events which are planned in a bid to pressurise the Government and relevant authorities to solve and end a 200-year-old issue.

“This is a reasonable demand of the estate workers. Look at the cost of living these days. It is very high. If these workers are to lead good lives they have to be paid more,” Jayantha Dehiattage said.

Echoing his views Father Sarath Iddamalhgoda who came with three others from Negombo said the authorities have continued to violate the rights of estate workers. “Their demands were not heard but we came together today to start a journey to make a positive change. Jesus Christ said to love everyone, and that is what we are doing here today.”

Plantation MD

Commenting on the demands, a Managing Director of a plantation company who requested anonymity said that the workers’ demand is unreasonable.

“We have proposed an increase of the basic wage up to Rs. 600. With the incentives for production and other benefits the day’s wage will then be around Rs. 940 a day. Now, can we negotiate when the demand starts at Rs. 1000,” he queried.

He also said that the demand for the increase has become politicised now, and that certain groups are fuelling their political agendas through this crisis.

The MD added that the tea industry is also struggling to thrive. The industry has been affected in different ways. One is the of ban imposed on glyphosate-based weedicides, despite scientific consensus stating that it is not harmful. Early last year the former Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB) Rohan Pethiyagoda said the industry is enduring losses of up to Rs. 10-20 billion annually as the ban remained in place.

Not long after this, the Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB) approved a promotional budget of Rs. 4.5 billion for global marketing of tea. To date, tea remains one of the key sources of foreign exchange for the island. The Sri Lanka Export Development Board’s (SLEDB) official website boasts of Sri Lanka’s tea thus: Commercially known as Ceylon Tea it is reputed for its signature taste and aroma.

Sri Lanka is the largest tea exporter to the world and the country’s largest employer since the crop was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1867.

“This is a historic movement because it is the first time that other organisations have linked with the estate workers to win their demands. Politicians have told lies, and used these people to win votes.

We are here to stop that from happening,” Workers’ Struggle Centre’s Duminda Nagamuwa said adding that they are determined to continue the struggle till their key demand of a Rs. 1000 daily basic wage is won.

Kumar walked with the protesters till the protest concluded, hopeful that this time their voices will be heard.

Not far from where the protesters stood, a group of men from Talawakele, Nuwara Eliya, Bogawanthalawa and several other areas sat on mats in front of the Fort Railway Station as they continued their week-long Sathyagraha. They too are demanding the Rs. 1,000 basic wage.

“We are involved in a peaceful Sathyagraha. We don’t wish to harm or cause inconvenience to the public. We are only demanding for what is rightfully ours,” 37-year-old Udaya Kumar from Talawakele said.

The group also hopes to continue their campaign till the basic wage is increased.