Estate deal divides trade unions

UPF-led trade union alliance slams collective agreement as betrayal of workers
By Chathuri Dissanayake

The crisis in the plantations seems to be far from over although three main trade unions signed a collective agreement last Wednesday, fixing the daily wage of an estate worker at Rs. 405.
Following the signing of the agreement, the Upcountry People's Front led by Minister P. Chandrasekaran has joined hands with five other unions to oppose Wednesday's collective agreement between plantation companies and the three trade unions -- the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), the UNP-backed Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union (LJEWU) and the Joint Plantation Union.

The UPF-led trade union alliance, which includes the Plantation Workers' Congress led by Vadivel Suresh and the Ceylon Workers' Alliance led by S. Sathasivam, said the trade union action of non-cooperation would continue until the plantation companies agree to pay a daily wage of Rs. 500. Addressing a news conference, Mr. Chandrasekaran warned they may even go to courts to get the collective agreement annulled while his trade union partner Sathasivam told the Sunday Times that the agreement was a "betrayal of the people".

Protest at a Kotagala estate after the collective agreement was signed on Wednesday

"We are not satisfied with the daily wage they have agreed to. The fight was to get Rs. 500. We have asked the labour minister not to endorse the agreement," Mr. Sathasivam said claiming that almost 40 percent of the workers were opposed to the new deal and were continuing the protests,
The union leader also vowed to take the matter before the International Labour Organization. But the CWC dismissed this claim.

Disputing his claim, CWC National Organiser R. Yogarajan said the workers were happy with the agreement and most of them, heeding the advice of the three major unions that signed the collective agreement, had gone back to work.

"The protests are isolated incidents and insignificant. They are politically motivated. If these unions say they have the support of the majority of the workers, we challenge them to prove it by getting them to strike," he said.

Mr. Yogarajan also said that if these unions were serious about their demand for a daily wage of Rs. 500, they should come for talks with the plantation companies.

"Minister Chandrasekaran can join the Joint Plantation Union and be a part of the negotiating team. If they think we have not done justice by our members, let them expose us," he said.

Mr. Sathasivam, when asked why he did not join the negotiations, said: "We are planning to write to the Employers Federation and ask them to recognize us as well because we represent 40 percent of the estate workforce," he said.

But Mr. Yogarajan pooh-poohed this claim. "The plantation companies which deduct the union membership fees from the workers' salaries were aware which unions have the 40 percent membership," he said adding that the three unions that signed the agreement represented 90 percent of the workforce. "If they had 40 percent membership, then the plantation companies would have called them for negotiations."

Planters Association General Sectary D. Perera said they usually signed the collective agreement with trade unions which accounted for a membership of at least 40 percent.

"If a trade union alliance claims to represent more than 40 percent of the estate workers, then they should write to the Employers' Federation and request to be included in the negotiation process," he said.

Mr. Perera acknowledged that there were a few protests but he warned they would be forced to take disciplinary action against the workers who participate in these protests.

"On most estates, the situation has returned to normal and the production is in swing without any disturbance but if anyone tries to create trouble, we will act according to the law," he said.
In a related development, the LJEWU said, it was not happy with the Rs. 405 deal though it signed the agreement.

LJEWU General Secretary K. Velayudam said they were forced to agree to the Rs. 405 deal because of the intervention of Plantations Minister D. M. Jayaratne.

"The minister announced that the basic wage should be Rs. 405. His entry reduced our bargaining power and strengthened the companies. So we were forced to agree to that amount even though we expected to strike a deal for Rs. 425 or Rs. 450," he said.

Minister Jayaratne denied that he used any pressure tactic to wring out the deal. He said he merely announced the amount which the companies and the unions had both agreed.

Asked about the protests by the unions that opposed the deal, the minister said the government would intervene if it felt their action had an adverse impact on the economy.

The basic wage: Myth or hardwork?

Trade union leader and Deputy Health Minister Vadivel Suresh said the claim that estate workers would now get a daily wage of Rs. 405 was a myth.

He said that in terms of the agreement, a majority of the plantation workers would draw a daily wage of only Rs. 285. "This is the basic wage without the attendance incentive or the Price Share Supplement (PSS)," Mr. Suresh said.

"Most of the workers are unable to record a 75 percent attendance to qualify for the Rs. 90 incentive allowance as they often fall sick due to the harsh weather conditions on the estates. The minimum requirement is 21 days of work. Even if an employee works 20 days a month, he or she won't get the incentive allowance. That is why we demand that the workers should be given a basic wage of Rs. 500," he said.

However the CWC National Organizer R. Yogarajan said this was not the correct picture. "We have got statistics from plantation companies and we have observed that 78 percent of the workers actually get the attendance incentive. We should encourage our people to work - not sit back lazily. Even in countries like Canada and the United States, people work in extreme weather conditions. Therefore, that is not an excuse.

"Even if the workers get Rs. 500 basic salary if they don't come to work they won't make a big packet. Only if a worker records a 75 percent attendance, can he earn a take-home pay of Rs. 10,125. This I think is quite sufficient," he said.

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Estate deal divides trade unions


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