A recent study says tea pluckers in Sri Lanka’s plantations take home only around Rs 3,500 per month and young people are leaving plantations for better paying work in cities.
An independent study conducted in March this year, in five estates in the areas of Hatton, Bandarawela and Ratnapura, on plantation worker wages, found that youth aspirations have risen above plantation wage rates.
“Even young people with only a primary education don’t want to work in plantations. They are going to Colombo and other cities and are willing to take on work even as construction labourers, because they feel these jobs pay better,” said Dr A S Chandrabose, the head of the Social Sciences Faculty of the Open University, who conducted the research.
The research found that on average, a tea plucker earned only Rs 200 per day although plantation managements say wages can go up to Rs 295 per day. Workers also lost much of their wages to mandatory deductions, including a charge to provide the detailed salary slip.
“The deductions account for about 30% - 40% of their total wages. These deductions are typically the EPF payment, festival advances, the cooperative fund payment, the union subscription, the funeral fund payment and loan repayments. They are also charged Rs 5 for a detailed salary slip,” said Dr Chandrabose.
Workers can earn up to Rs 290 per day by finishing 75% of the work offered by the plantation but most workers can’t do this.
“If a worker can do up to 75% of the work offered, then they are paid Rs 290 per day. If not, they are paid lower rates. But the problem is, most workers say they can’t meet the 75% requirement because they also need time to rest and to attend to the needs of their families,” said Dr Chandrabose.
As a result, at the end of the month plantation workers have very little to show. “A tea plucker, on average, gets only Rs 3,000 to Rs 3,500 per month. So if both the man and woman are working in the estate, the family will get about Rs 6,000 – Rs 7,000 income per month,” said Dr Chandrabose.
Quality of life
The research found that nearly 65% of the plantation workers are also still living in single barrack and double barrack line rooms.
“Many of the younger generation have got a secondary education. So they don’t want to live in these old line rooms. Because of this, many families have got loans to improve the line rooms. Some are paying interest rates of about 22% for these loans,” said Dr Chandrabose.
Change the rules
Plantation workers want salaries of Rs 400 to Rs 500 per day, which is seen as equal to manual-worker wages outside plantations. However, plantation companies say this is not possible because of the other welfare facilities plantation workers get and the already high cost of production.
The research recommends that plantation wages be increased to Rs 300 per day and the 75% work requirement be waived. The research also recommends that the payment for plucking above the minim daily requirement be increased from the current Rs 9 per kilo, to Rs 20 per kilo of tea. At the moment the tea plantations have large female work forces as 70% of tea pluckers are women. The research says better pay will attract more men and youth back into the plantations.