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Uncertainty over wage increase for plantation workers

Image from Social Media.
The increase in the daily wage of plantation workers to Rs 1,700 is far from certain, although it was announced with much fanfare on May Day.

Labour Commissioner General H K K A Jayasundara issued an extraordinary gazette notification on April 30 detailing a procedure of payment for workers in the tea growing and manufacturing trade. The proposed wage model stipulates a daily wage of Rs 1,350 along with a daily special allowance of Rs 350. The gazette also proposed workers to be paid an over kilogram rate of Rs 80 a day.

“Objections to the proposed determination will be received by me until 12 noon on May 15,” the notification said.

Hours later, addressing the May Day rally organised by the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) at the Kotagala Public Ground, President Ranil Wickremesinghe also reiterated the wage hike.


Making their presence felt: Estate workers hold protest in front of Fort Railway station last week. Pic by Indika Handuwala

However, the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, one of the main parties in the collective wage agreement said: “The President’s announcement may be misunderstood and lead workers and the public to assume that a final decision has been taken in this matter, when it has not.”

Plantation workers are also skeptical of a quick solution. Kathiresan Kanthinesan (43) said he could barely support his family of four despite him and his wife working at a plantation company at Maskeliya in Kandy.

“We are doubtful whether companies will increase our salary to Rs 1,700 a day as announced. Even if they do, that’s not enough to run a family. Companies complain of less revenue but during the economic crisis and global pandemic, we worked tirelessly and they made billions as profit at the expense of our hard work,” he told the Sunday Times.

He also recalled how companies made it mandatory to pluck at least 20 kilos of tea leaves to be eligible for Rs 1,000 a day back in 2019 or the day wage would be reduced significantly.

“If one worker plucks only 10 kilos, he would be given Rs 500 only. It is a very unfair model and it is not possible to pluck that amount of tea in several estates since it depends on climate and soil condition. But no unions or companies bothered to look into this aspect despite our request to do so several times,” Mr Kathiresan said.

Plantation companies used the same tactic of not turning up for talks on collective wage back in 2019 when plantation workers and unions demanded a salary of Rs 1,000 a day followed by a government gazette notification, said Muthulingam Periyasamy, Executive Director at the Institute of Social Development, a Kandy-based civil society organisation that advocates wage and land rights for plantation workers.


May Day: Estate workers bring their demands to Colombo

“Since they have the right to appeal, they went to Courts against the gazette notification and the case is still pending. Plantation companies declared at that time that they could not increase even Rs 100. It took more than six months for them to agree on the previous wage agreement of Rs 1,000 a day,” Mr Muthulingam noted.

The plantation industry is also feeling the acute shortage of adequate labour due to the economic crisis and migration of labour.

“We have seen youths leaving the plantations at an alarming rate just to ensure they can support their families at home. In 1992, more than 500,000 workers were in the plantations, but currently it is around 100,000,” said Thangavel Kanesalingam, Convener of the Movement for Plantation Peoples’ Land Rights.

Meanwhile, speaking at a media conference at the Presidential Media Centre on Thursday, General Secretary of the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers’ Union and parliamentarian Vadivel Suresh said both the government and the Planters’ Association had an obligation to increase wages of estate workers. He decried the “shameful conduct” of the Planters’ Association and urged it not to go against the government’s decision.


By S Rubatheesan and Sandun Jayawardana  

Sunday Times


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