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Monday, June 17, 2024

Sri Lanka: A long journey in tea dotted with nothing but stains

Image: Land issue is one of the main problems faced by Hill Country Tamil Community. 

By Kamanthi Wickramasinghe.

200 years later Sri Lanka’s estate workers remain subjugated like leftover tea leaves.

Some veteran workers in the estate haven’t received their pensions or the social security allowances at the time of retirement.

There are individuals who received houses because they backed politicians in this area.

Plantations that produce CTC tea don’t require manual labour.

Perhaps you readers may be getting ready to enjoy this piece with a hot cuppa of Ceylon tea in your hand. But what you are about to read is as bitter as a strong black tea without sugar.

*R. Sundaram (78) was born at Drayton Estate, located at the heart of Kotagala town in Hatton, one of the main tea-producing regions in the Nuwara Eliya district. He lives in a tiny abode (more like a cell which his family refers to as their ancestral house) with his wife; a space barely enough for two people to move about. His house comprises a tiny bedroom and a kitchen. A basic amenity such as a toilet is still a far-fetched luxury for them. The year 2023 marks 200 years since the British brought down South Indian Tamils as indentured labour to work in the plantations. While some have prospered, many continue to live in dilapidated line rooms and unlivable conditions. What is even worse is that even though Ceylon tea has placed Sri Lanka on the world map, the tea pickers in the country continue to live as a subjugated community, similarly to the tea leaves and the residue that have started depositing at the bottom of your mug.

The management of plantations should pay the EPF and ETF allowances to its permanent employees. A labour officer usually goes on inspection and notes down any complaints. A penalty will be imposed on any employer who is unable to pay the social security allowance – Prabath Chandrakeerthi Labour Commissioner 

A life of blood, sweat and tears

Sundaram has reached his retirement age and had he been a government servant, he would have been enjoying his retirement with his family. But this is not the case for people like the Sundarams in the estate sector. Once retired, they return to the estates as contract workers to make a living. But not everyone is as lucky as Sundaram because there are some senior workers in the estate who still haven’t received their pension or the social security allowances at the time of retirement.

One of the observations is that the social security allowances they receive are often spent on dowries, or their children would waste the money on alcohol or they would buy three-wheelers without leaving any savings for the parents. On the other hand, once retired they have to give away their line rooms and go elsewhere. But they have nowhere else to go and live peacefully. Therefore they continue to work and eventually pass on their work to their children.

Old age is not a barrier for labourers as long as they have the strength to work. “If we don’t work for three days at a stretch there will be no work for us,” Y. Padmakanthi, another resident at Drayton Estate said. “We have to pick 20kgs of tea. Workers at this estate receive only Rs. 1000, but those who work in other estates on contract basis receive Rs. 1500,” she complained.

Work is compulsory for these labourers regardless of whether the work is decent or not or what the conditions they work or live in. Therefore they have to brave leech bites and occasional leopard and wasp attacks as well. During the visit there by the Daily Mirror its reporter learned that it has been five years since some estates used weedicides and pesticides to maintain the undergrowth. Apart from that it is in seldom occasions that these people have access to medical facilities.

The 2020 Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard includes requirements for wages, working conditions, housing, access to healthcare and education, respect for workers’ rights, training, and capacity building, and engagement with workers and their representatives- Madhuri Nanda Director-South Asia at Rainforest Alliance 

The urge to live a good life

A walk around the line rooms revealed that not all of them are in bad conditions. Some families have refurbished their temporary abodes with striking colours, furniture and other equipment while a majority of families continue to share one room.

Image courtesy of Daily Mirror.

“There are no deeds for these houses,” said S. Prabhu, who runs his catering business. “But we receive the electricity bill on time. That too has tripled. Initially our electricity bill was around Rs. 1200-1500. But now it’s around Rs. 4000. If we don’t pay that we have to pay an additional fee.

“But despite all that we also like to live a good life and that’s why we spent on furniture and other equipment,” he added, smiling through betel-stained teeth.

The topic about the rights of the estate community and their wages and grievances usually emerge during an election. But now this community has realised that they have been used as pawns in a political game all along. “There are some who received houses because they backed politicians in this area. Those houses have deeds. So they rented out their line rooms to their relatives and friends and shifted to the new houses,” claimed K. T Dilan, a third-generation resident at the Estate who is employed in Colombo.

But if they don’t vote for a party they would be deprived of their shelters as well. Therefore they have to cast their vote, giving no regard to their conscience. “When an election is round the corner they (politicians) would visit us and promise us better living conditions. Once the vote has been cast, they eventually forget us until the next election. This is a vicious cycle,” said Dilan.

During the Daily Mirror’s visit there the residents were rushing to collect water from the tap line. When inquired they said that they receive a supply of water just for two hours for the day and that they have to pay Rs. 400 each month for this ‘service’ which was initially provided to them sans a fee.

False promises

Sri Lanka however is the world’s largest manufacturer of orthodox tea. This means that the tea leaves and buds need to be handpicked. But plantations that produce CTC tea don’t require manual labour. These establishments have now introduced machines and they only require around five workers to maneuver these machines. Right now the estate sector is manned by a permanent workforce of numbering around 169,000.

As a trade union we educate them regarding these matters. We educate them on EPF and ETF, the percentage that is being deducted from them and their employers and so on – Kalpa Madhuranga Protect Union General Secretary 

“Some plantations claim that there’s a shortage of workers and the same plantation will deploy casual/contract workers and task workers,” said P. Muthulingam, Executive Director at the Institute of Social Development. “Apart from the permanent workforce, the estate sector provides employment to around 175,000 contract and task workers. But workers rights are often violated,” said Muthulingam.

Muthulingam said that the estate management should remit EPF on behalf of workers even if they work one day. “The permanent employees are entitled to maternity, health and other benefits. But now the labour cost is high. the market price of tea is also high. This means the workers need to be incentivized,” he said.

This is why workers demanded a Rs. 1000 wage hike which has been debated since 2005. With the soaring cost of living, a family of four cannot survive on a pittance. The school dropout rate has increased since children cannot afford to pay Rs. 100 for transport. “When they (trade unions) signed an agreement with plantation companies in 1992, they promised to look after the welfare of the estate community. The Plantation Housing Development Trust for instance promised to provide new housing for the communities. People were promised a 20 perch land, a vegetable plot and cows. This is what they promised to the trade unions. But the workers haven’t received anything so far,” continued Muthulingam.
The first collective agreement was signed in 1998 between the Employer’s Federation of Ceylon and three trade unions, the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union and the Joint Plantation Trade Union Centre. The contents of the agreement are up for annual re-negotiation and should be revisited and re-signed every three years. Apart from wages, the contents also include the welfare of estate communities, employment regulations, benefits, estate facilities and worker-grievance procedures.
With the passage of the National Minimum Wage of Workers (Amendment) Act No. 16 of 2021 the National minimum daily wage payable increased to Rs. 500. “Prior to the Rs. 1000 demand, estate workers were paid Rs. 750 per day. The requirement was to work for 25 days. Therefore they were entitled to a salary of around Rs. 16,000 monthly,” said Muthulingam.

Muthulingam further claimed that even though the requirement is to pick 18 kilos, in order to be paid Rs.1000, some workers are required to pick 20 kilos of tea. “But this means they have to pick an additional 6 kilos because the weight could fluctuate due to the moisture of tea leaves,” he explained.

Due to the Rs. 1000 demand Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) decided to withdraw from the agreement as they claimed that they need an income of around Rs. 10 billion if they are to provide Rs. 1000 to the workers. Following this demand the LJEWU decided to officially withdraw from the agreement in 2019.

Muthulingam further claimed that the workers’ salary has been declared as a subscription and therefore some workers still don’t get Rs. 1000. “What the companies did was they reduced the workforce. Some companies agreed to provide 200 working days a year. This was mentioned in the collective agreement at the beginning. But following the Rs. 1000 demand, plantation companies reduced the number of working days for workers by between 12-15 days a month. Therefore their monthly salary is still Rs. 15,000 as was paid initially when they received a daily wage of Rs. 750. This is now being practised in every state and not even the trade unions are bothered anymore,” he said.

The only solution to improve the welfare of estate workers is through government intervention. “Welfare means housing, sanitation, health and so on. If companies are not in a position to provide welfare benefits to workers, the government should look at providing a subsidy at least to tea smallholders. Government workers were provided with salary increments. But why doesn’t that apply to permanent estate workers,” questioned Muthulingam. “The government, after all, is obliged to safeguard the rights of citizens and the livelihoods of people,” he underscored.

Lack of financial management

With the reduction of the workforce an informal sector has emerged within the estate community. But during this newspaper’s visit to this estate it was brought to notice that some workers who once served as permanent staffers have still not received their EPF contributions. “Permanent employees in the estate sector are sometimes unaware of how they should obtain as their social security allowance,” said Protect Union General Secretary Kalpa Madhuranga. Protect Union is a trade union that aims to empower workers in the informal economy sectors. “As a trade union we educate them regarding these matters. We educate them on EPF and ETF, the percentage that is being deducted from them and their employers and so on,” said Madhuranga.

As mentioned earlier, estate workers are often compelled to spend their allowances on dowries, buying three-wheelers for their children or paying off their loans and eventually they are left with no money. “The social security allowance is provided for them to spend their retirement peacefully. Instead they spend all their money and rejoin estates as cash workers. We therefore educate them on sustainable financial management practices as well,” explained Madhuranga.

He further questioned what the NGOs and civil society organizations have done for the well-being of the estate community. “Apart from a few, many of these organizations have done nothing,” he claimed. “The estate sector was a key sector that received much funding. But there are no significant changes that have taken place over the past 200 years. They still don’t even have an address to themselves. The trade unions too have become heavily politicised and they don’t bother about these workers anymore,” he added.
The estate community is trapped in a vicious cycle. “Once the elders stop working at the estate the next generation has to continue work if they need to occupy the same line room. Therefore children have to compromise their education and work along with their parents. This is the root cause of all these issues,” Madhuranga underscored.

Fundamental rights violated

The provision of a social security allowance is a fundamental right of a plantation worker. But when inquired, Labour Commissioner Prabath Chandrakeerthi said that there are around 15,000 cases regarding the non-payment of social security allowances across various sectors. “The management of plantations should pay the EPF and ETF allowances to its permanent employees. A labour officer usually goes on inspection and notes down any complaints. A penalty will be imposed on any employer who is unable to pay the social security allowance,” said Chandrakeerthi.

The estate management in question will be notified: Rainforest Alliance
Many plantation companies now have to meet several criteria in order to obtain the Rainforest Alliance certification. Apart from environmental conservation, one criterion is to ensure the welfare of workers. “The 2020 Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard includes requirements for wages, working conditions, housing, access to healthcare and education, respect for workers’ rights, training, and capacity building, and engagement with workers and their representatives,” said Madhuri Nanda, Director-South Asia at Rainforest Alliance. “By implementing these measures, farms showcase their dedication to the well-being of their workers and their commitment to adopting more sustainable business practices,” said Madhuri.

She further said that plantation companies need to ensure that the workers on their plantations receive the benefits they are entitled to while complying with local labour laws and regulations. “We recognise the highly difficult economic situation in Sri Lanka, which has severely impacted small farming communities and tea estate communities across the country. We are conscious of the adverse effects this situation has had on the welfare of workers in certain estates.

“Drayton Estate, a division belonging to Kotagala Plantations PLC, possesses an active Rainforest Alliance certificate. We will specifically instruct the designated auditors to prioritise the concerns raised regarding social security allowances during the estates’ forthcoming audit,” she added.

( Daily Mirror)

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