‘Horrified’ by plight of Sri Lanka’s plantation workers, says tribunal  

Their wages remain far below the living wage required in the context of Sri Lanka’s current costs of living, following hyperinflation during the crisis, a recent study found 

Updated - June 12, 2024 07:15 am IST

Published - June 11, 2024 10:00 pm IST - COLOMBO

Plantation workers of Sri Lanka have for long demanded fair wages, better working and living conditions.

Plantation workers of Sri Lanka have for long demanded fair wages, better working and living conditions. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

An international tribunal of former judges from the region said it was “horrified by the stark realities” of the lives of Sri Lanka’s tea and rubber plantation workers, after hearing testimonies from workers and trade unions.

Hailing from the island nation’s Malaiyaha Tamil community, tens of thousands of workers are engaged in tea and rubber production. They earn vital foreign exchange for the country that is struggling to rebuild its economy after the dramatic meltdown of 2022.  Last year, Sri Lanka’s revenue from tea exports totalled $1.3 billion, while rubber-based exports fetched $930 million, according to the Export Development Board.

Watch | How the economic crisis has hurt Sri Lanka’s hill country Tamils

However, the workers who toil in the country’s plantations continue to work and live in abysmal conditions. “It has shocked the conscience of the Tribunal that such practices could continue unabated in the modern civilised world,” members said in their findings, echoing concerns that trade unions, local activists, and UN experts have flagged in the past.

Also read: Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaha Tamils living in inhumane, degrading conditions: U.N. expert

Organised by Ceylon Workers Red Flag Union, a trade union based in the island’s central Kandy district, the Tribunal heard eleven workers employed in tea and rubber plantations across central and southern Sri Lanka, as well as three trade union representatives last week.  Testifying before the tribunal — with Justice A.P. Shah from India, Justice P.K. Ojha from Nepal and Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane from Sri Lanka as its members — the workers, mostly women, shared the multiple challenges they encounter at work, such as the very demanding targets tied to their daily wage and the absence of basic sanitation facilities. Leech bites and wasp attacks are common, while medical care remains out of reach, more so amid soaring living costs following the country’s crisis. Speaking of her family being forced to ration meals to cut down expenses, a worker employed in tea plantations for over 20 years, said: “Let alone having three meals, I have not been able to afford a cup of tea with milk in years. If at all I can, it is plain tea once in a way.”

In his remarks at the conclusion of the hearing, Justice Shah noted: “they live practically a sub human life, and certainly do not have a life of dignity”.

Remember our history, recognise our labour, say Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaha Tamils 

On May 1, 2024, President Ranil Wickremesinghe announced an increase in the daily wage of plantation workers from LKR 1,000 to LKR 1,700 (roughly ₹468). Plantation companies vehemently opposed the move and petitioned Sri Lanka’s Court of Appeal, seeking an order invalidating the gazette on the wage hike. But the court refused to stay the gazette notification.

Workers, however, remain sceptical. From 2021, the workers have been entitled to a daily wage of LKR 1,000, but they rarely earn that amount. The targets introduced by employers are “unrealistic and impossible to meet”, according to workers.

A bitter brew: For Sri Lanka’s tea estate workers, fair wage is still elusive

A recent study led by University of Peradeniya Economist Prof. S. Vijesandiran estimated that the total monthly household expenditure for a tea estate worker’s family of four, as of April 2024, would be LKR 86,897.71 (roughly ₹ 23,913) for “a decent life in the context of the cost of living and inflation effect as of September 2022.” That would mean a worker must earn at least LKR 2,321.04 (around ₹ 638.71) a day.

Observing that the daily wage was at the heart of the problems faced by workers, the Tribunal noted that workers experience “abysmal pay, extremely slow progression in wage increase and blatant non-implementation of wage increases.”  

The Tribunal recommended that all measures be taken by stakeholders including the State “to execute in letter and spirit, without delay, the minimum wage of Rs. 1,700 fixed by the government.”. Further, it urged the Sri Lankan government to prohibit “all unfair practices adopted by the plantation companies”, such as reducing days of work, arbitrarily increasing daily targets and informalising labour to deprive workers of their right to receive the minimum, statutorily fixed wage.

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