It was just two years ago that Sri Lanka celebrated the 150th year of tea after Scotsman James Taylor planted the first tea seedlings at Loolecondera estate in Galaha in 1867. There were year-long celebrations to mark the event, here and abroad. So tomorrow, when the country marks the 71st year of independence from British [...]

Business Times

Rendezvous with tea


It was just two years ago that Sri Lanka celebrated the 150th year of tea after Scotsman James Taylor planted the first tea seedlings at Loolecondera estate in Galaha in 1867.

There were year-long celebrations to mark the event, here and abroad. So tomorrow, when the country marks the 71st year of independence from British colonial rule, have workers on the plantations won their own independence from the current masters of the estates?

These thoughts lingered on my mind listening to a conversation among Kussi Amma Sera and her friends Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu on Thursday morning.

Apey tay wathuwala wedakarana lamai-ta thavama honda vatupak labenne ne (Our tea workers are still not getting a decent wage),” said Kussi Amma Sera.

Aei, giya sumane, padi prashneta visadumak labuna neda (Why last week their wage issue was resolved, isn’t it?” responded Serapina. They were seated under the Margosa tree, ironically sipping cups of tea and chatting ahead of a usually, busy day in their respective places of work (homes where they work as domestic aides).

Mama hiththanne nehe (I don’t think so),” said Mabel Rasthiyadu, joining in the conversation with her normally two-cents-worth of views.

After months of discussion and threats of a strike, plantation companies last week agreed to a basic wage of Rs. 700 per month for workers, up from around Rs. 500 earlier but short of the workers demand for a minimum Rs. 1,000 a day.

There are about 250,000 workers on estates leased by plantation companies and state-owned estates but nearly a million people (workers and their dependents) depend on tea estates for their sustenance.

The battle for a minimum wage of Rs. 1,000 has been going on since 2017, the year Sri Lankan tea marked 150 years of existence. While reflecting on these thoughts, the phone rang. It was Arthika, my nonsensical economist friend.

“Hi, what’s happening these days,” he asked, yearning for a long conversation, at a time when I desperately needed to get back on my computer to beat a newspaper deadline. “Oh … I am writing about the estate wage hike,” I said, hoping to cut the conversation short.

“Ah that’s a tough one. How can plantation companies afford to pay more when they are struggling with rising costs and additionally, the ban on the weedicide Glyphosate?” he replied. “Yes but I sympathise with workers who are also struggling to make ends meet on a pittance of a salary,” I said, by then warming up to a conversation on a decent wage versus the companies’ ability to increase wages.

Eventually, we got into a long conversation and a friendly to-and-fro argument on decent wages, profitability and the need to change the 152-year-old plantation model of stay-in workers on estates. He was in support of plantation companies being unable to pay more than what was agreed last week, while my contention was that while profitability may be an issue, a family cannot survive on less than Rs. 1,000 a day. So, where lies the solution?

A decent wage is what these workers and their families require and such a demand is a far cry from the time they were a subdued workforce when British planters imported shiploads of low-wage labour from South India to work on the plantations under abysmal conditions.

Yes, their status and life have improved a lot under Sri Lankan estate ownership management – unlike the slave-driven days of the early 1900s. But they still remain far removed from the rest of Sri Lanka’s unskilled workforce and are considered a captive labour force with no dignity of labour.

Their struggles for a decent wage and recognition are poignantly captured in songstress Neela Wickremasinghe’s Sinhala version of Nimal Mendis’s classic ‘Master Sir’…..….‘Master Sir, mage himi thana denawado//Ane Sir, anukampa nosithedo…’

In the English rendition of the song, Mendis wrote (and sang) …..…‘Master Sir: There’s a long, long way for us to go//Before this tug-o-war can come to an end//And when that day will be//Oh, I don’t know Master//When can I call you friend//It’s not the extra fifty cents you pay me//Even tho’ I can feed my child one more spoonful of rice//Master Sir, would you give me dignity//Master Sir, will you treat me kind and nice..’

In recent years, the decades-old plantation model has come into a lot of discussion and debate, particularly on productivity which is lower than other tea producers. Productivity averages around 1,520 kg/ha with low-country productivity averaging around 1,850 kg/ha, lower than South India and Kenya (which has the highest productivity), according to a 2011 study. Plantation companies have been campaigning for years for a change in the model to one where estates workers are given land to produce their own tea and sell to factories during their spare time, while additionally working on company-owned estates. Companies argue that this model will help both parties – workers and their employers.

This model has worked on a few estates with workers also reaping the benefit of “owning” a small piece of land, working on it and also on the estate. However, unions representing workers are not too happy with this model fearing workers would lose their daily wage, would not be allowed to stay on the estates and not get other benefits like free health services, etc. Unions also fear they may lose their grip on tea workers in such a model.

There have been attempts in the past to lift the dignity of labour on estates through uniforms, better housing, improved health services and education. However, when you travel through tea plantations, the sight of workers in the sweltering heat with baskets attached to their backs to collect plucked tea leaves and buds, is a grim reminder that the dignity of this labour force is still, very far away.

Working on the fields in the hot, blistering sun is also a dignity of labour issue for paddy farmers whose sons and daughters, rather than take-over the cultivation of these lands from their parents, prefer factory or office jobs or work in any other space. The same applies to plantation workers whose children, some of whom have qualified to enter universities with a few even practising as doctors after passing out from medical college, are reluctant to do what their parents, grandparents and forefathers did – toil on the estates.

Like the cool winds that blow across beautiful upcountry estates, the answer may lie in another round of discussions among workers, unions, plantation companies, state agencies and NGOs supporting workers in searching for the right model that would benefit both the workers and the companies. The right model needs to put the core issue of the workers – dignity of labour – at the heart of any discussion.

So as I drink that strong cup of tea every morning, prepared by Kussi Amma Sera, with the tea coming into the house after being lovingly produced in the tea fields of the country, let’s raise a cup to the improved lives of workers, their families and giving them the dignity of labour.

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