Plantations sector : Struggle for wage increase to continue | Sunday Observer

Plantations sector : Struggle for wage increase to continue

‘We cannot use machinery for our orthodox teas. Besides our soil and weather conditions are different’. Pic: Lake House Media Library
‘We cannot use machinery for our orthodox teas. Besides our soil and weather conditions are different’. Pic: Lake House Media Library

The ‘1,000 Movement’ comprising civil society organisations, human rights activists and trade unions said it will continue its struggle to increase the daily wage of plantation workers to Rs. 1,000 which had been deprived to them, despite repeated appeals for a decent wage.

The Movement convening a meeting at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo last week said it will mobilise civil society organisations in a joint effort to achieve the Rs.1,000 daily wage that has been denied amidst the soaring cost of living in the country.

“We have planned a series of meetings and seminars in the estate sector and across the country to raise awareness and convince the country the injustice meted out to plantation workers whose sweat and blood bring in the much needed foreign exchange to the country,” a convener of the Movement, Dhanusha Pathirana said.

Countering arguments by plantations companies, the 1,000 Movement exposed the vested interests of Planters’ Association’s claim that tea estates are currently more or less loss-making and therefore, a wage increase of up to Rs. 1,000 a day demanded by workers will ruin the industry.

The Movement notes that planters rest their argument against the workers’ demand on two main postulates. The first popularises the myth that plantations sector revenue depends on Sri Lanka’s tea auction price (Rs. 581.58 per kg in 2018 – CBSL) while in reality, the sector revenue changes according to tea export price (Rs. 820.75 per kg in 2018 – CBSL) in global markets.

The latter, in general, is over 40% above the former which is evident from above figures. Second postulate states that labour productivity of Sri Lankan workers is sharply below that of other tea producing countries due to their inefficiency and lethargy. Therefore, low wages in Sri Lanka according to the planters is to be blamed on workers themselves.

“Rather than workers’ love for idleness it’s the mechanisation of tea cultivation processes in other tea growing economies, such as Kenya and Japan which led to the phenomenal increase in labour productivity and in turn created the conditions to realise higher wages and profits in real terms with the unit cost of production and the supply price of tea simultaneously reducing,” Pathirana said.

According to data under mechanisation, countries, such as Kenya and Vietnam harvest around 70-80 kilos per day and between 35 to 40 kilos through hand plucking.

The 1,000 Movement also noted that the profits generated from exports are not ploughed back to the industry.

‘“Profits are used for other ventures of plantation companies. There is no proper replanting taking place to improve yield. At least 2.5-5 percent of the land should be replanted but that is not happening,” a spokesman for the Movement said, adding that after 200 years is it time the tea industry takes a serious look at its journey and how it plans to go forward.

The 1,000 Movement also notes that if the Collective Agreement is implemented properly, many of the issues of the workers would be solved.

“It is only wages that are amended in the agreement which is revised every two years. The other issues pertaining to the well-being of workers are ignored,” panellists said, adding that the Collective Agreement is written in English, a language which workers are not familiar with.

Former Planters’ Association of Ceylon Chairman and current Haley’s Plantations Managing Director Roshan Rajadurai said those who make a hue and cry do not understand the real state of the plantation industry. The current price of a kilo of tea at the auction is Rs. 450 and only half of the amount is sold. The export price is higher than that but there are costs that should be added to it, such as blending cost and taxes.

“Kenya and Vietnam pluck around 80 kilos with the use of machines and between 30-40 kilos by hand. We cannot use machinery for our orthodox teas. Besides our soil and weather conditions are different,” Rajadurai said, adding that sheers are used selectively.

Regional Plantation Companies (RPC) account for about 130,000 pluckers, while small holders comprise over 400,000 workers who do not get EPF.

“A worker gets a daily wage of Rs. 855 under a 300-day mandatory work schedule. Our companies have offered them good health and educational facilities,” Rajadurai said adding that those who agitate for a wage hike must also speak for higher tea prices in the global market.