Placard carrying and slogan chanting estate workers - men, women and children took to the streets in the main towns of the hill country demanding a wage increase. The scene was unusual in this generally calm region.
After a few days into the strike and with no immediate solution in sight, trade unionists in another attempt to step up pressure on the government and plantation companies drew out the workers for mass demonstrations in main towns in the plantation sector.
The trade union action caused chain reactions in Colombo where plantation companies were concerned about the losses with fears of share prices dropping. Tea exporters were concerned about meeting their orders and the quality dropping. The government was alarmed that the action had led to unwarranted incidents as in Hatton where a shop keeper was attacked for keeping his shop opened while most others in the town had closed their business premises last Monday.
Plantation Companies were equally concerned about granting the wage increase claiming the cost of production would increase as the prices depend on market forces.
Brian Baptist, Tea Director at Bartleets believes that the cost of production would increase at a time when world demand for our tea was very strong due to problems in other producing countries.
At the beginning of this year local tea producers and exporters had been optimistic about the industry. Kenya's tea industry had suffered due to political instability, India and Indonesia's markets had been affected by drought while in Peru the industry was affected by floods.
The weekly Tea Auction is expected to feel the pinch from the strike early next month. The average 5.5 million Kgs of tea put forward for the auction is likely to drop to 3 million Kgs by next month. Not only the quantity even the quality might drop.
"The strike has not affected us so far, but by the second week of March we will feel the consequences. Tea prices also may increase." says K.V. Vethanayagam, a Director of Eshwaran Brothers, a leading Tea exporting company.
Tea is still Sri Lanka's largest export commodity and foreign exchange earner. Sri Lanka is also the biggest tea exporter in the world ahead of Kenya and India.
For the fourth consecutive year tea production continued to increase in 1997 surpassing the previous year's level to reach an all time high of 276. 8 million Kgs, compared with 258.4 million Kgs in 1996.
The nine day long strike is being described as the biggest trade union action in plantation history. It is backed by nearly 20 unions including the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC) which supports the government and the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers' Union(LJEWU) which is the main UNP union. Thus it has brought about a rare unity among workers. None of the workers had collected their January wages as they were not given the additional Rs. 22 which they are demanding.
Spreading from the tea plantations in the up-country to the rubber plantations deep south, the workers showed unity by not accepting their wages for January. The refusal to collect their wages undoubtedly was an additional burden for them, but whether in Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Hatton or Yatiyantota the workers who spoke to The Sunday Times said they were determined to carry on the strike action until their wage demand was met.
"The workers are only demanding a 'reasonable wage'. Considering the plight of these workers, their call for a wage increase is not unreasonable," says Uva Provincial Council member K. Velaitham, who is also an active member of the LJEWU.
"The government and the companies should realise that the uncertain situation may be exploited. There could be extremist elements who may try to make use of this opportunity," warns Mr Valaitham who has launched several projects including free computer training programmes to uplift the living standards of the plantation people.
Ambanwela: not taking chances
The problem of wages is not the only issue for the 500,000 strong work force in the plantations. Some of them do not have national identity cards and often face security problems amidst increasing reports of terrorist infiltration. Medical facilities for instance have shown only marginal improvements. Hatton town does not have a hospital, only a central dispensary. Most schools are short - staffed. Transport is so poor that many people are seen walking several miles to get to the nearest town.
Some of the plantation workers who do not have NICs are confined to the areas where they live. This is seen in the case of M.Mohanraj(24) from the Telbedda estate, who has been making attempts to obtain an NIC but to no avail.
"I am scared even to go to the town as I do not have an identity card," he says.
An estimated 200,000 estate workers do not possess national identity cards, according to a local politician.
Despite widespread reports about terrorist activities in the plantations such as incidents where transformers were blasted there were no immediate signs of LTTE operating in the area. Senior Superintendent H.M.B. Ambanwela rules out any major LTTE infiltration in the region.
"The last terrorist related incident reported was far back in 1991 when an arms cache was detected in the Ella area," SSP Ambanwela said.. "Even the incident where explosives were planted near a power pylon there is no evidence to identify the group responsible for it. An abandoned pylon had been blasted in the incident.
However Police are taking no chances. Regular security checks on estates are carried out and the civil defence force has been put into action.
However, what is alarming is that some estate youths have 'disappeared' from their homes and the parents have no idea of their whereabouts.
SSP Ambanwela confirmed that some of the youths had gone missing from their homes. The possibility that some of them had gone to the east for LTTE training cannot be ruled out.
Local politicians , Trade unionists and even workers feel that extremist elements could capitalise on the situation.
The JVP's recruitment drive extended into the plantation sector last month was one of the indications that even a radical group could build its ranks in the area. "An estate girl was the announcer at a JVP meeting in Badulla," says a politician.
One of the main problems of the estate sector as we found was that the workers had to strive hard to keep to the new trends in the estate sector. For instance, most of the children now attend school. The parents are compelled to provide for education from their meagre salary of less than Rs 2000, if one of the parents is working and about Rs 4000 - 5000 if both are working.
V.Lechchumi, a mother of 3 children and the bread winner of a family at Telbedda estate sends her three children to school. "My husband is an asthma patient. He cannot work. I am forced to provide for my family members with my monthly wage which varies from Rs 1500 to Rs 2000.
D.M.Anulawathi,a mother of five says, "We have to toil hard to make a living. At the end of the month we end up with hardly anything left. One of my children has studied up to ordinary level and she is unemployed, but does not like to work as a labourer."
This could be the changing scenario in the plantation sector where the educated would be reluctant to work on the estates
With most children attending school and the literacy rate increasing finding estate workers could be a problem in the future.
Some of the companies have already tried out a mechanical device as an alternative to pluck tea, but experienced workers believe that it could reduce the quality of tea as the machine would not be able to determine the proper tea shoot.
But, V.Puthirasigamani, Central Provincial Council member believes it would be wrong to presume that the educated may not like to work on the estates.
"What is needed is to improve the dignity of the estate workers. Today they are treated even below the level of sanitation workers. The mentality that the educated will not work is wrong."
One of the allegations against plantations is that estates are not properly maintained and management companies are looking for short term benefits, a claim denied by the management companies.
An Assistant Superintendent of an estate who did not want to be quoted said that if these companies did not have long term plans to earn profit, they would not invest in this sector.
Meanwhile, as the focus remained on the main demand for a salary increase in the first four days, on the fifth day the strike nearly took a communal twist following an incident in Hatton.
The Hatton town until Monday morning was peaceful. Around noon more than 1000 estate workers backed by some local politicians and trade unions took to the streets. Earlier some of the local politicians had told all shops to close. However, as the demonstration progressed one of the shops remained open. Two local politicians reportedly got the demonstrators to gather opposite the shop owned by a businessman from the south.
After a few minutes of argument demonstrators pelted stones into the shop known as ''Samanala' Stores' and the shop owner, A.M.P.Mendis Silva, 56 was injured on the head and leg .
Mr. Mendis Silva,who came from Gandara, told The Sunday Times from his hospital bed at Watawala there had been no prior agreement to close the shop and he had kept his business open as usual.
"I was not informed of any such decision. No one can compel me to close the shop," he said.
Some local councillors and a senior member of the CWC are reported to have instigated the crowd.
"I have had dealings with estate workers for many years and I am sure they would not harm me. It is these politicians who created the trouble," he said police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
The following day, a poya day, the Sinhala shop keepers wanted all shops to remain closed and Tamil traders in the area had agreed. But Deputy Minister P. Chandrasekaran who came into town made an attempt to get the shops to open. This increased communal tension.
"As a Deputy Minister he should have acted in a more responsible manner," a trader in the area said.
In Colombo President Chandrika Kumaratunga met Cabinet Minister Saumayumoorthy Thondaman , the leader of the Ceylon Workers' Congress(CWC) last Sunday but the following day he left to India leaving his grand-son, Arumugam Thondaman to tackle the situation. Another round of talks was held on Tuesday but no settlement was reached. Another meeting was scheduled for Friday after Minister Thondaman returned.
On Friday night after a four hour long discussion between the President and the CWC, the LJEWU and the Joint Plantation Trade Union centre along with representatives of the Employers' Federation an agreement was reached to end the strike, but the consequences of the strike are likely to be felt for at least two to three weeks.
The Director General of the Employers' Federation, Franklyn Amerasinghe expressed fears that the additional burden on plantation companies to pay increased wages for workers could adversly affect the tea and rubber industry.
Mr. Amerasinghe told 'The Sunday Times' that earlier the Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB) and the State Plantation Corporation (SPC) had to incur additional expenditure that eventually led to the down fall of the two organisations.
'These organisations had to depend on state bank loans and the companies cannot afford to do this', Mr. Amerasinghe said.
'Most of the companies are involved in managing tea and rubber plantations and although the tea prices are up, the rubber prices are down. Therefore it is difficut to keep big profits', he said.
Mr. Amerasinghe referring to the strike said the Federation had called for the appointment for an arbitrator and the strike could have been settled if the government had agreed to our request.
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