Plantations getting lonely
Decades ago it was the plantations that attracted the best talent in the country. Not anymore.
Sri Lankan plantations are facing a severe crisis: the children of workers no longer can be retained on the estates to carry out what their fathers, mothers and grandparents did join up as workers.
The industry lost its lustre with other sectors taking over as lead industries like garments and migrant workers. Not only are children of workers educating themselves at a much higher level than their parents but also looking for jobs outside the plantations. Some have even graduated from local universities.
That’s not the only problem. Plantation companies - ironically happening at a time when the estates are privately managed compared to the period when it was under state control -- are unable to get the best recruits.
Unlike the ‘good old days’, nowadays youngsters need freedom, a less restrictive atmosphere and the plantations is probably a lonely place to work.
Senior planter Dhyan Madawala says the lifestyle of the new generation is a deterrent towards attracting youngsters to estates. “Schooling of the children and more diverse opportunities have led them away from plantations,” he was quoted as saying in this week’s report on the plantation crisis by our reporter.
G. Rasaiah, a central region business leader, says young people feel restricted on estates. “Their freedom is limited when they are confined to the estate,” he says. Another plantation executive said plantations have become a lonely life and far from the ‘good old days’ when it was hard work during day and socialising in the nearby clubhouse at night.
With an at least 10 percent dropping off from the labour count annually, plantations and the government are both grappling with the dilemma of retaining tea as the country’s best known commodity export.
Mechanization – as an option to labour -- seems the only way out but experts point out that finger plucking of the tea leaf is also what Sri Lanka is famous for and full mechanization could turn away buyers.
“If you use machines for plucking we will lose the market we have, because machines do not employ the same technique compared to plucking,” a senior plantation official says. Plantation workers have always been easy to manage --because they eat, live, work and breathe on estates. Everything is found for this captive labour force. Even the lack of a national identity card was seen as a way of ensuring they remain on estates “and not stray outside on jobs or other errands.” That is changing fast and the biggest problem the industry will face in the future is that they may no longer have a captive labour force.
Rights for workers, better jobs and living conditions and possible experiment in outsourcing labour would see many workers freely moving in and out of plantations. One option - already under discussion in some quarters - is for companies to lease out plantation areas and buy the leaf from growers and run the factories, just like smallholders in the southern region.
However even in the south, labour - to work on plots owned by smallholders - is becoming a scarce commodity as labour acquires more mobility and better paying jobs come around.
Another option already in practice is to move heavily into value added teas and raise the profile of Ceylon Tea and for ‘heaven’s sake’ not Sri Lanka Tea as a brand. Recently the government backed out of a proposal to change the branding to Sri Lanka Tea from Ceylon Tea, a brand that has been built, cherished and grown for decades.
Value added teas bring in much more revenue to companies, the government and also enables plantations to pay better wages to workers and provide them a more dignified standard of living. Freedom of movement is also essential.
Given these challenges raised here and in our plantation feature, it may be time the industry takes a hard look at itself through a thorough brainstorming session or 2-3 day discussion and come up with a two-track approach: one to tackle short-term problems as and when they arise and a second track to chart a 10-20 year plan as to where the industry should be in the year 2040!