Wage hike of little help for Sri Lankan estate workers

From the time the British brought them down from Tamil Nadu a century ago, estate workers have been toiling in Sri Lanka’s famed tea estates.

November 18, 2016 02:18 am | Updated December 02, 2016 04:09 pm IST - HATTON, NUWARA ELIYA:

“We protested so much but tell me, what’s the point?” S. Padmavathy asks, her voice bearing the fatigue of a long day’s labour. “All we have got is a 50-rupee increase in our basic salary. What’s 50 rupees today?”

She was referring to the collective agreement that Sri Lanka’s regional plantation companies and labour unions signed a month ago, to increase the daily wage of estate workers to LKR 730 (roughly INR 335). “Even that’s only if we manage to pluck 20 kg a day,” Ms. Padmavathy says.

The marginal hike, from the earlier LKR 620 wage, did not come easy. In September, thousands employed in tea estates came together in one of Sri Lanka’s largest worker mobilisations in recent times. The workers protested for weeks together, demanding a daily wage of LKR 1,000. It was 18 months since a prior agreement expired, and their patience was wearing thin. The agreement was finally revised, but the new deal offers little hope.

“Just see how we live,” says L. Kanagasivam, a worker employed in an estate in Hatton. Pointing to one of the homes in a nearby “line” — a row of very small rooms next to each other — its rusty tin-sheet roof threatening to crumble, he says: “They [companies] suck our labour. But we don’t get any help.”

Not just the companies, even the Sri Lankan Government — in its response to the widespread protests — echoed employers’ fears about a crisis in the country’s plantation sector. “We are used to that,” says Mr. Kanagasivam.

From the time the British brought them down from Tamil Nadu a century ago, estate workers have been toiling in Sri Lanka’s famed tea estates — located largely in the Central and Uva Provinces — contributing significantly to the country’s second largest export commodity. Deprived of basic education, health care, and decent living conditions, the community struggles to move ahead.

Forty-three years old and a single mother, Ms. Padmavathy supports three school-going children. “During the rainy season like this, dealing with the leeches is a big hassle. They keep climbing our legs, we have to keep throwing them away,” she says, worrying about losing active work time.

Political platforms

Meeting targets has never been easy, according to M. Krishnakumar, a worker. More so for women. “At least men don’t have as much work at home,” says the 39-year-old, who heads a local union affiliated to the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, a party that once had the largest support base among estate workers. “I have no faith in any political party now, including mine,” Mr. Krishnakumar declares, explaining that he is a member only because he needs “some platform” to organise workers.

However, employers do not think workers have such a bad deal. That the most representative unions agreed to the new wage package meant it was fair, according to Kanishka Weerasinghe, Director General, Employers’ Federation of Ceylon. Unrest in West Asia and Russia’s economic woes have badly hit Sri Lanka’s Tea Industry, he says, adding that despite that, companies have increased wages “considering the situation of the workers.”

“It’s not like every worker will now get LKR 730. If they make 500 or 530, it’s a big thing. The terms of the new performance-linked incentive are also not clear yet,” says Vethilingam Mahendran, national organiser of the New-Democratic Marxist-Leninist Party, a small left-wing organisation.

At a recent meeting the party convened in Hatton — of union leaders affiliated to different parties and local activists — one thing that everyone agreed on was that the estate workers shouldn’t stop demanding what is rightfully theirs. “This was one of the biggest mobilisations we have seen here, we can’t let that momentum go,” Mr. Mahendran says.

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