Ensure the welfare of the plantation worker

TESTEnsure the welfare of the plantation worker

Ceylon Tea has made a name for itself in the global markets, and it being the world’s most popular drink, is relished by tea drinkers all over the world. According to statistics it makes an export earning of over US$ 1.4 billion for the country. That is, when the workers in the plantations who number approximately around 5% of the country’s population, languish in dilapidated line-rooms in the estates in squalid conditions without the basic facilities.

Many generations of this unfortunate people have continued to live in poor housing conditions for almost two centuries, despite having contributed their sweat and blood to make Ceylon Tea earn a name in the world. These are descendants of the South Indian labour brought to the country to work on the plantations by the British two centuries ago, and recent survey has revealed that they number around 850, 000 persons and remain forgotten and discriminated against in the country of their birth.
Despite successive governments, having made piece meal efforts to improve their lot over the years, they remain neglected by government authorities, and need to go through the estate superintendent to have access to basic services, which the citizens of this country avail of in the normal course of business. They fall into the lowest socio-economic group and are afflicted by poverty and malnutrition; their lot not having improved over the last two centuries or so they have been in the island.
The Collective Agreements signed every two years between the Planters’ Association, the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon, and the major trade unions have ensured them a daily wage of little over
Rs 650 rupees, which is made up of a basic wage and allowances. The Planters’ Association and the Employers’ Federation argue that the higher wages paid to these workers has contributed to the high cost of production, which makes Ceylon Tea uncompetitive in the market.
Their argument seems to be, that plantation workers in other countries get paid less, and our plantation workers through their bargaining power have succeeded in winning higher wages through Collective Agreements signed in every two years, pushing up the cost of production, making Ceylon Tea unable to compete in the world market. While this argument may be plausible, the fact is, that in comparison to the purchasing power of the earnings of plantation workers in Sri Lanka, those in other countries are able to do quite a lot more with their earnings, though low.
The Collective Agreement, stipulates that workers who pluck over 18 kilogrammes of tea per day which is the norm, would be entitled to an additional payment for the excess leaves plucked. But the yield in most of the estates managed by Regional Plantation Companies is low because of their run-down condition, with the tea bushes being old or having lesser number of tea bushes and so on. Acquisition of estate land by the State for various purposes, such as town development and so on has also contributed to the decline of yield in these estates.
Certain utterances by politicians, that tea estates that are in a run-down condition would be taken over under the Rival of Underperforming and Underutilized Assets Law, to make them profitable, has also added some confusion, prompting companies to be unwilling to undertake replanting due to the cost involved and the time it would take to get a return on their investment. Due to the run down condition of some estates, workers suffer a lot, because they are unable to pluck the required volume of tea leaves resulting in lesser earnings. Some estates do not offer anything more than 16 days of work to the pluckers, because the yield has dwindled due to the factors mentioned above, in which case even a willing worker cannot pluck leaves in excess of the norm, to earn additional income.
The Ceylon Workers’ Congress, a once powerful trade union in the plantations sector led by former Government Minister Savumyamoorthy Thondaman genuinely worked for the welfare of these people. But the current leaders of this trade union which is also a political party, seem to be content asking for the votes of these unfortunate people to propel them to power, rather than working for their welfare.
These people have to be pulled out of the mess they have fallen, if their lot is to become any better. They are the backbone of the tea industry, and if the tea industry is to be sustained, their well-being has to be ensured. This is the responsibility of the government of the country.

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