PEDRO ESTATE, Nuwara Eliya – An eerie silence pervades Sri Lanka’s aesthetic tea estates that are dotted today with only a few women using their agile fingers to pluck two leaves and a bud. But unknown to them strong undercurrents, due to low leaf prices, are in boardrooms of management companies to steer the future [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Greener pastures beckon Ceylon Tea estates

Dilemma of Sri Lanka’s biggest agricultural export

Verdant tea and rolling hills

PEDRO ESTATE, Nuwara Eliya – An eerie silence pervades Sri Lanka’s aesthetic tea estates that are dotted today with only a few women using their agile fingers to pluck two leaves and a bud. But unknown to them strong undercurrents, due to low leaf prices, are in boardrooms of management companies to steer the future towards a new model of higher yields and higher wages.  The hilly estates are monetarily not a viable option for the workers of today or for privately-owned companies both of whom are paying a high price for their economic sustenance. Trade unions, which get in the way, seem to be losing popularity with limited political clout.

But an interesting sign on the horizon is plans to venture into diversified crops like coffee, in the latter case turning back the pages of history and time. If not for the coffee blight that destroyed the crop in the 1870s, tea would never have emerged as an alternative.  Tea estates in Sri Lanka have a long drawn history with the crop marking 150 years next year and continuing to observe age-old practices even today, despite lifestyles of workers and livelihoods drastically changing. No more is the labour captive though private sector regional plantations believe this is the only way to sustain the plantations.  A Business Times team visited the Pedro Estate owned by Kelani Valley Plantations of the Hayleys Group last week.

Ms. Sudarambai

Established in 1887, it has 2000 hectares of lush tea fields producing under the labels “Lover’s Leap” and “Mahagastote.” And so it was here that we had the opportunity to talk to workers and staff about living on an estate and how the lives of future generations on the plantations could change if the work structure shifts to a productivity-based model.  A number of key issues persist with one of the most important being that workers are clueless about the progress of ongoing discussions between trade unions (representing workers), plantation owners and the Government on a new model and other changes.

Traditions and practices
From ‘womb’ to ‘tomb’ workers are looked after by estates and in their own words they told us; “we get all welfare at our place on the estates”. Dependence on the estate is across all boundaries.  For instance a letter of recommendation from the Estate Manager helps workers to secure a bank loan, get them out of trouble with the police or get a job for their children outside the plantations. While workers have been bound to the estate by a strict system of traditions, they no longer are tied to this lifeline as most have shunned it in search of greener pastures.

The annual ‘Sami Kumbran’ (a Hindu festival) is given concessions like the use of at least three estate-owned vehicles and holidays for workers on the days of the feast. These traditions are applicable to Christians as well. The company is also duty bound to provide paint, kerosene oil, sacks, lime for whitewashing the kovil and labour to clean it.  Moreover, upon the death of an estate worker, workers are released to carry out the duties of burying their dead. In addition, vehicle expenses are provided to bring down the body from wherever the place of death for burial on the estate.

S. Tillainathan

On the day of the funeral there would only be one stretch of work hours till around 2.00pm for that division to which the deceased worker belongs to.  Labourers involved in pruning the plants which takes place every five years are provided with sugar, milk and bread and tea as a practice. Factory workers are given bun or bread and evening tea.  The kankani, who organizes the estate labour, is provided an extra rate for his services in this capacity in addition to the attendance pay.

Company observations
The plantation sector today is riddled with a host of problems with the removal of subsidies and weedicides adding to the chaos that has already arisen due to falling prices in the world market for tea.  Pedro Estate Manager Anura Senanayake said that today on the plantation out of a resident population of about 7000, only about 1100 are registered workers and out of that too only about 850 workers turn up daily.  This has been attributed to people finding employment in vegetable fields and other jobs, it was explained.

Factory floor

In fact, he noted most of the children today have been provided education facilities as a result of which they seek other jobs in other sectors as well as on the plantation’s own factory. This has resulted in the plantations having a very poor turnout of workers. “Our biggest problem is that we have a shortage of workers,” Mr. Senanayake complained.  A pressing concern on the estates is the withdrawal of the fertilizer subsidy provided by the government until 2015. Previously it cost them Rs. 26,000 per metric tonne with the subsidy payment which has now nearly doubled to Rs. 53,000 per tonne following the removal of the subsidy.

Moreover, glyphosate a widely used herbicide sprayed on the plants to kill weeds has been banned in Sri Lanka as a result of which large scale agricultural lands have been increasingly affected. Basta, an alternative weedicide, is expensive and costs the estate Rs.18,000 per can whereas weeding with glyphosate would cost only Rs.4000 per can.  Mr. Senanayake noted that copper oxychloride, a fungicide not available in the market for the last six months resulted in the propagation of blister blight fungus. This causes the leaf to turn black as a result of which about 30 per cent of the crop has been affected.

Living room of a tea worker Pix by Indika Handuwala

While these concerns were the general issues on the ground level, overseas Sri Lankan tea has been frowned upon by its key buyers: Russia with its own concerns on the tea prices since it has been affected by a drop in the rate of the Ruble, Iranian sanctions, Syrian crisis and the Iraq problems have all added to the costs and drop in prices of Ceylon Tea.  But problems are not restricted to the management. Workers have their own share of issues though it is unlikely that they would walk out the estates and start an entirely new life in an alien environment.

Issues of workers
Ms. Vimaladevi (35), a mother of two and a tea plucker for the past 12 years, complained that the pay on the estates was not sufficient to meet their daily requirements as a result of which she was compelled to work a few days of the month on vegetable fields outside the plantation.  She is the sole breadwinner of the family with an alcoholic husband. “If we are paid more, we will not go out to work – it is only if we go out that we can earn more,” she asserted.  in about Rs.7500 per month she is able to earn Rs.900 per day on the vegetable fields where she works for 2-3 days per week.

New accommodation

“We want our children to get into other jobs,” she said when asked about the next generation and added; “that’s why we send them to school.”  Most workers are attracted by the Rs.900 daily wage offered by nearly vegetable field owners compared to the overall Rs.620 inclusive of EPF and ETF or basic salary of Rs.450. Vegetable field owners drive in their trucks to the estates boundaries to pick up workers willing to come along. Work on these fields were said to be tedious since they were not allowed to get up during work hours causing much strain.

They are offered soup. At times workers would have to return to the estate if there was an excess of labour on a particular day.
Another tea plucker, Ms. Sudarambai (39) says that if they could earn extra she would spend on building a ceiling in her home, purchasing household goods, warm clothing, shoes and raincoats. At present she invests money in a “seettu” for the purchase of jewellery and savings for the children.  She complained that her husband’s pay did not help in generating any savings since he would spend at least Rs.300-400 per month on alcohol conveniently forgetting to purchase medicine for her eldest child, who suffers from epilepsy, since the medicines were not freely available.

Ms. Sudarambai’s 13 year old daughter and 10 year old son attend school.  “Life is sad – so we don’t want to pass on this sadness to our children,” she said pointing out that the next generation prefers moving out of the estate.  N. Navaneethan (35), is the only person in her family working on the tea estate in a family of six where the mother in law stays at home, father in law is engaged in odd jobs and the husband earns about Rs.30,000 a month as a driver outside the estate. With two children educated in a semi-government school their expenses are high including Rs.1000 school fees and she is looking at obtaining a loan from the local bank and obtain a separate house on the estate.

Mechanised plucker

P. Devagi (38) on the other hand is not married but earns for her family since their parents had died. Living on the estate has proved good to her as she was able to get a house which she has given to her sister and her husband who are both working outside the estate. However, all members of the family including her elder brother who is currently on retirement and another brother who is trying to get a job, live on the estate obtaining all the facilities.  Others on the estate like M. Lawrence has got approval to obtain extra space to their line rooms which have being transformed to more comfortable abodes with a dining, two bedrooms, sitting room, kitchen, toilet and pantry.

Out-grower model vs productivity model
Manager Mr. Senanayake explained that during his time on other estates he was able to convince some of the workers into engaging in the out-grower model. The regional plantation companies had proposed to adopt a method similar to the smallholder concept where workers would be paid according to the output of green leaf with plots allocated to them that would then enable them to get higher wages.  This system has been adopted in a number of estates and proved to bring in a higher yield and improved gains. However, Mr. Senanayake pointed out that workers at Pedro Estate had clearly shown their dislike towards this model slamming their palms on his table, during one discussion, opposing the model.

What workers say is that since all family members cannot work on the estate, a higher yield is not possible.  Field watcher R. Savundarapandyan, also Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) representative and Assistant Secretary of the Co-operative Society of Estate Workers said; “We will have to employ our children and we don’t want to do that,” he said adding however, living on the estates was meaningful to them since it provided the necessary security and even the ability to get a loan from the bank among other welfare benefits.

It is through the Co-operative Society that members who are workers on the estate have the ability to get a house.  Under the proposed productivity model, the workers would be paid Rs.620 per day for three days of the week and from the fourth day workers will function on a productivity based system whereby they would be paid Rs.35 per kg of tea plucked daily. However workers and even union representatives were clueless about the new model.

Trade unions
Trade unions, the middle man or the face of the worker at high level meetings that sit around to discuss particularly wages related issues, are fast losing their popularity.  Workers today openly oppose unions with Ms. Devagi pointing out, “We do not believe in the unions.” In fact she also noted that they did not know about the new system either.  S. Tillainathan who started out as an office assistant at the factory has risen to becoming an English-speaking guide at the Tea Centre, said “They don’t tell us properly. They have misled us. Our grandfathers, fathers, and we want the estates but our sons don’t want it.”  The CWE, the most powerful plantation union, has lost its popularity being unable to win the wage demands of workers even after more than 18 months have lapsed since the Collective Agreement ended in March 31, 2015.

Mechanisation to pluck leaves gets work done faster and in an improved time period for which two persons are employed and paid a basic salary of Rs.450 each until 2.00pm and another Rs.450 basic salary for anything more after 2.00pm.  However, problems on this front are that the machines are not functioning due to poor quality as a result of which the plantations are compelled to use manual labour.  RPCs have diversified into coffee as well with the Hayleys plantations already started with five hectares in Hatton in addition to a number of other companies as well that have looked at producing this crop and pepper.

It would likely be marketed overseas, Hayleys Plantations Managing Director D Roshan Rajadurai said. They have also diversified into the leisure sector as well with at least four bungalows to be upgraded to boutique hotels under the Amaya brand.  Mr. Senanayake, when asked why they do not want the workers to live outside estates, says that this was not possible as these people have no place to go and were descendants of the Indian origins brought down by the British colonials.

However, these colonial structures are falling fast and even the trade unions are looking at new models like establishing these workers outside the estates in communities in one village which seems a distant reality. Workers want to remain on estates but not most of the new generation. The promise of new labour is hard to find but the estate owners believe they need to hold onto them for what seems like more than a lifetime.

Worker benefits vs reality 
  •  Water is free but some workers pay for this service if they had obtained the facility through a different government programme. 
  •  Seven crèches provide facilities at a Child Development Centre where a 42 day-old baby to 5 year-old children are looked after. 
  •  Co-operative Society provides housing loan and charges Rs.850 for gas and cookers. 
  •  Rs.2000 per coffin and free tea and labour and vehicle for funerals 
  •  Powdered milk and 1kg flour for babies under one year 
  •  Children are given up to 10 years free wheat flour 
  • n Medicines are said to be free but it was found that some drugs were not available as a result of which the workers were compelled to purchase these from outside the estate.
What may have gone wrong   
  • Weak management (in some cases) 
  •  Poor recruits (in some cases) 
  •  No passion for the job (managerial level) unlike in the 1960s-1980s 
  •  Alcoholism a major issue 
  •  In most cases it has become a cash cow and not a national venture
  •  No replanting – Large percentage of tea bush over 75 years old 
  •  Bulk of tea sold to ME, CIS and Russia. These markets are unsustainable 
  •  Should have expanded markets to Europe and US with niche product rather than dependence on traditional markets.


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