Colombo Despatch International

A fair wage is a pipe dream for these workers

How much money is enough to live in Sri Lanka, where costs of living are high? How much do workers employed by Sri Lanka’s tea industry earn, even as they toil in its scenic estates, boosting export revenue for the country?

The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), a Colombo-based think tank, looked at the estimated wages of workers in the tea estate sector. The institute’s recent study pointed to a wide gap between workers’ estimated gross monthly living wage of LKR 23,315 (roughly ₹9,820) and the prevalent wage of LKR 19,086 (about ₹8,040). This, after factoring in a wage revision in 2016 and the inflation figures for 2017.

After years of debate and little action, there appears to be a resurgent interest in the idea of a “living wage” in the last few years, particularly after it found mention in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. For the plantation sector workers, however, a fair wage has remained a far-fetched dream.

As Sri Lanka celebrates 150 years of its globally-renowned Ceylon Tea, marking the milestone with a series of activities and commemorative events, some are shining the spotlight on the living conditions of estate workers, which have remained substandard from the time the British brought them from South India more than a century ago as indentured labourers. Be it in access to housing, health or public education, the community’s state presents a picture of long-term neglect.

According to a forthcoming research publication of the Institute of Social Development, a non-governmental organisation based in Kandy, the household poverty headcount is highest in the country’s estate sector. The study notes that plantation workers’ current daily wage of LKR 620 (approximately ₹260) was inadequate for household needs, especially because workers seldom found employment for 25 days or more a month.

A marginal rise

Low wages have remained a persistent concern but in September 2016, workers resorted to unprecedented mass protests demanding a daily wage of LKR 1,000 (about ₹416). Following their agitation, the country’s regional plantation companies and labour unions signed a collective agreement, committing to an increased daily wage of LKR 730 (roughly ₹307). However, sections of workers maintained that it hardly made a difference, because even the marginal increase was assured only if a worker plucked 20 kg of tea leaves a day. Given that the prices of essentials and staple food have been soaring, the workers’ point is hard to miss.

The estate sector was well-mobilised by local politicians in the days of Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) leader Savumiamoorthy Thondaman. However, subsequent leaders have been unable to live up to the legacy. Sections of workers, irrespective of their unions or party affiliations, have only grown disillusioned over the years.

A recent news report in Sunday Times said two hill country Tamils petitioned a Court of Appeal after they were deprived of new houses following destruction of their line rooms in a fire accident. They blamed Hill Country and New Villages Minister Palani Digambaram, a leader who rose from within the community, for their plight, suggesting that even the younger crop of leaders who have emerged in the last few years may be working within the limits of patronage politics, making those on the margins heavily reliant on local politicans. It is in this context that a call for a fair living wage is pertinent. It not only has the potential to set workers free from the clutches of patronage politics, but will also allow labourers to work and live with dignity.

Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo.

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 7:01:20 PM |

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