Grievances of a tea smallholder | Sunday Observer
Letter:

Grievances of a tea smallholder

I am a tea smallholder. Everyone thinks that ‘wage increases and collective agreements’ are only for the workers of big tea estates. However, this is not so. The workers in tea smallholdings too demand the same wages. Otherwise they do not come to work.

With the basic wage being increased to Rs. 700 in February last year through the Collective Agreement with big tea companies, I too had to pay the same wages. If I don’t pay, I loose my labour force resulting in having to close down the estate.

As such I pay a casual worker - Rs. 700 a day and a registered worker - Rs. 700 + 50.00 (PSS rate) + EPF + ETF = Rs. 850 per day.

The VAT reduction and the tax benefits given to big companies don’t apply or bring any relief to us. We are mainly green leaf suppliers but we pay labour wages, apply manure, spray weedicide, prune and attend to all agricultural practices and also transport our teas to factories. We also have to face the adverse consequences brought about by climate change.

All this is a huge cost which is borne by tea smallholders.

We also have to pay maternity benefits / creche maintenance / maintenance of line rooms and provide vegetable plots from our own land.

The factories which take our green leaf make a lot of demands – and at times deduct huge percentages from my daily supply of green leaf. This happens on a large scale at times of oversupply of green leaf in the area and no amount of negotiating with them helps, as they are looking for profits too. Although we ask for a certain norm from the tea pluckers we have to adjust it according to the crop situation.

The weather and climate play a big role in this. Right now I have brought the norm (the amount they have to pluck to get the full Rs. 700 basic) to 16 kilos a day.

But as the payment I get for my green leaf depends on the performance or NSA of that particular factory – we are at most times in great difficulty. At most times my total expenditure far exceeds my total earnings, resulting in me being in debt to banks.

We now come to manual workers. They are mostly men. They work the most, for four-and-a-half to five hours, but we have to pay them a full day’s wage. This was unheard of during my father’s time. This is very damaging to the tea industry and needs to be addressed immediately. All wage increases have been granted without it being linked to productivity; resulting in more salary and less work. There are constant reminders for us to replant or improve our estates. If we could replant the tea and make it more viable by using machinery to pluck, it would be ideal. But how can we do it under all these conditions? Every one or two years when we try to get our finances sorted out; comes a wage increase making it totally impossible to improve the estates.

The labourers’ economic situation remains the same even with wage increases mostly because, they are not educated enough to know how to save and also because they are heavily alcohol dependent. Due to this, the smallholders are in huge difficulty; seeped in debt and overdrafts.

Suggestions:

A very important issue for us smallholders, is to grant a fixed rate for green leaf, since the factories which buy our leaf will always be linked to their NSA.

A reasonable Rs. 85 per kilo of green leaf without the Rs. 3.60 they give for transport will see us through and also enable us to improve the land. Please do not in the future simply increase wages without proper and strict guidelines to the work schedule and work ethics. The Government or who ever is responsible will have to put these guidelines in place. The workers sometimes are a law unto themselves, and we are unable to get them to stick to times and do a task. If these is a written document to state their work times then we can ensure proper work times.

Wages are never related to productivity. As a result wages go up but productivity remains the same and the tea industry deteriorates daily.

We have to address the grave alcoholic addition among estate workers of all ages. It is not due to the cold climatic conditions, but mainly due to ‘wine stores’ that have mushroomed in the recent past in the hill country.

Mariya Bazaar is about three-fourths of a kilometre in length. It had only one ‘wine store’ about five years ago. Now it has four. Why does every government which comes to power ignore this very important aspect? If the estate workers are so impoverished, how do they have enough money to buy alcohol and then spend the rest of their money on other things? I have followed their lifestyle closely and have constantly stated the grave repercussions that alcohol has to the tea industry but each time it has fallen on deaf ears. Why don’t the higher authorities understand this basic reasoning. We increase wages once in two years. The labourers spend the increased amount on liquor.

The liquor merchants gets richer and richer. The labourers get addicted and spend more on liquor when wage increases. We, the estate owners are at our ‘wits end’ to meet the increased wages. Meanwhile, the tea industry is slowly deteriorating and eventually will die a slow death.

Without increasing wages can we not give them basic foodstuffs such as rice, sugar, flour, coconuts, coconut oil, dhal, salmon and kerosene at a very nominal rate distributed by co-ops put in place by a coupon system?

Every bazaar or small town can have a co-op. By this, the mothers or sisters and the female worker will be happy that their husbands, sons and grandsons be saved from the alcohol and drug menance.

May I also suggest that to improve the tea sector we need to improve the knowledge and intelligence of all stakeholders. This includes ACLs, union leaders and workers.

I only read Roshan Rajadurai’s comments in the newspapers about our tea competitors such as Kenya, India, China, Bangladesh and Vietnam and read about how much a worker has to pluck in Kenya and India to get their daily wage.

The daily requirement is 30-35 kilos. For this too they get a paltry sum as their daily wage. Whereas we have to sometimes decrease the norm to 14 kilos.

If this is made known to the workers and also made known to all stakeholders including workers’ unions, we can be more competitive and more sensible in our wage increases.

The workers also do not know that the cost of production includes the wage rate. The higher the cost of production, the less demand from overseas buyers for our tea. It is imperative to educate them on these lines as well.

Savithri Gunasekera

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