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Monday, January 24, 2022

Sri Lanka: Tragic tale of tea and roti; many estate workers go to sleep hungry

Image courtesy of Open Democracy.

The hard-working and lowly paid plantation workers were shocked by the recent steep increase in the price of wheat flour and other essential items.

In tea plantation estates, families are finding it difficult to have even two meals a day since their monthly salaries are not enough to meet the increasing cost of living.

In many families, roti made of wheat flour and scraped coconut, is a staple food item. In the mornings, workers would leave their ‘line rooms’ with a couple of roti wrapped in a paper and a flask of hot water, and return in the evening to have rice and curry for dinner. Today, many families are forced to tighten their belts due to the sharp increase in wheat flour prices.

Bogawantalawa Lower Division tea plucker Arullappan Ithayayothi said many workers were able to have only two meals a day since they could not afford to buy vegetables or rice at the current prices.

“Unlike others, we cannot grow vegetables since we do not own any land. We have to buy everything. Despite the wage increase of Rs 1000 a day, we get less for a month,” Ms Ithayayothi said, while lamenting that many workers go to sleep hungry.

Plantation workers alleged that despite their wage being increased to Rs 1000 a day from March this year after talks dragged on for months, their monthly earnings were significantly reduced since plantation companies reduced the number of working days and forced them to pluck at least 22 kilograms of tea to be eligible for the full day salary.

Ms Ithayayothi said earlier workers earned an additional fee of Rs 40 for a kilo of tea they pluck in some months above the 18 kilograms minimum limit which was revoked in the latest collective agreement.

“Earlier, workers would work even on holidays and Poya days to earn an additional income. Now, the companies do not provide such a facility. The government should assist us with a rationing scheme or a subsidised price for wheat flour,” Ms Ithayayothi said.

Plantation workers alleged they had not received livelihood assistance from the government since the pandemic lockdowns began last year even though they reported to work throughout these periods. They were also left out in the state’s social security programme – the Samurdhi scheme – if a person from the family was employed by a plantation company.

A Kandy based non-governmental organisation Director P. Muthulingam, aid both culturally and historically, roti forms a key part of the diet of plantation workers.

“It is a staple food for them compared to bread for others in sub-urban, rural and urban areas. Wheat flour has a long historical link with the plantation workers and we see the consumption of wheat is significantly high among plantation communities since they cannot afford high-calorie food items due to their limited salaries,” Mr Muthulingam said, pointing out that attempts were made in past to introduce rice flour dishes to the families but these efforts were not successful.

Early this week, the two main wheat flour companies, Prima and Serendib, announced they were increasing the wheat flour price by a steep Rs 17.50 a kilo, because of the foreign exchange crisis as the rupee further depreciated against the dollar.

The latest price hike was the third instance within the last two months since the government in September revoked the gazette notification imposing a maximum retail price for wheat flour. In July, both companies announced an increase of Rs 8 a kilo, followed by another increase of Rs 10 in October.

City, urban and village people were also affected by the soaring wheat flour price which also lead to the increase in prices of bakery products. A loaf of bread has increased in price by Rs 10, short eats by Rs 5 and kottu by Rs 10.

In 2010, the wheat flour price was at Rs 69.75 a kilo but eventually, there was a steady increase over the years to Rs. 92.65 a kilo by 2019, due to adjustments in global market prices, according to economic and social impact statistics published by the Central Bank last year.

Consumers said short eats and other bakery products’ prices were increased significantly in the recent weeks while the quality dropped.Some agitated consumers also went to the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) to complain about the increase in prices and the drop in quality.

S. Rubatheesan/ST

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