24th December 2000
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Sweet flavour

By: B.Sivaram

Following the privati- sation of estates, plantation companies have worked hard to improve field productivity and enhance the quality of the end product. For the first time, Sri Lanka's tea production this year is estimated to cross 300 mn kg.

Privatisation has also brought about renewed hopes and aspirations for improving the working and living conditions of the industry's vast workforce. There is recognition within the management companies that a contented and motivated workforce is crucial for improving the productivity and profitability of the estates. This perception gains ground in the context of the emerging labour shortage, growing stigma attached to estate work and increasing tendency for out-migration among younger persons in search of non-estate jobs. Plantation workers themselves are pressing, through trade union and government support, for social development - an area that everybody agrees has received a backseat in the scheme of estate administration.

Approach to social development

Some of the desired changes are now visible across the estate community. These involve the construction of new worker houses and upgrading existing ones, provision of safe drinking water supply, improvements to sanitation and environmental hygiene, raising the health and child care standards and adding to the social infrastructure within the estate community.

The onus of implementing these multi-faceted programmes rests on the Plantation Housing & Social Welfare Trust, a tripartite agency established as a prelude to privatisation in 1992 with the government taking the lead role and the management and unions serving as the other pillars. Widely referred to as the Trust in planting circles, the activities of this independent body have received the support of the Dutch and Norwegian governments who give financial and technical assistance under the Plantation Development Support Programme currently in progress.

Basic services

Since its inception, the Trust has been providing wide-ranging forms of assistance to upgrade the quality of life within the estate community. The foremost of these has been in the realm of 'self-help' housing, a concept that "enables the provision of homes for workers rather than merely accommodation to house workers". The main instrument for channelling the self-help initiative is the Estate Workers' Co-operative Societies (EWHCs) of which there are now more than 300, with one quarter of resident workers subscribing to their membership.

Apart from grants as well as technical support towards planning and construction, loans up to Rs 30,000 per unit are given to beneficiaries at low interest, repayable over a 15-year period by deductions off their payroll. The management chips in by offering land to the EHWCs. According to available statistics, about 8,500 new houses have been constructed since around 1995 and another 10,000 are in progress.

Whereas new/self-help housing constitutes one package, another and more cost-effective option takes the form of upgrading/re-roofing of the existing house. For this purpose, supplementary assistance is forthcoming to the Trust through two other agencies, namely the Plantation Reform Project operated with ADB funding and the Estate Infrastructure Development Programme mooted by the Ministry of Estate Infrastructure. The resultant subsidy-cum-loan is made use of by workers in keeping with the present condition of houses and their perceived requirements. Nearly 35,000 units have or are in the process of being upgraded/re-roofed.

Besides housing, the prime needs of the estate community are water and sanitation.

As of now, 68 per cent of estate households have access to safe water supply while the proportion of those with family latrines is about 46 per cent. Improvements to health and social infrastructure are being made which encompass the construction and upgrading of creche buildings, dispensaries, maternity wards, community centres, staff quarters and farm roads.

Some attempts have lately been made to quantify the investment that has gone into social infrastructure in estates since privatisation. A tabulation by the Programme Support Group places the cumulative figure during the period 1993-99 at nearly Rs. 900 mn, inclusive of donor contribution. The break-up suggests that housing accounts for the bulk (45 per cent), followed by water supply (19 per cent) and sanitation (18 per cent), with the other related areas such as creches, schools, health services, estate/approach roads, electrification etc. claiming the balance 18 per cent.

In this connection, three aspects come to mind. First, the quantum of investment, important as it certainly is, has to be viewed as the means, not the end. This is because the ultimate objective is to upgrade the quality of life of workers and their families which if translated merely in terms of rupees and cents sometimes tend to mask the true picture.

The second issue relates to sustainability. Since the likelihood of donor assistance drying up in due course cannot be ruled out, some pre-emptive initiatives would appear to be necessary, both by plantation companies and the Trust, not only in respect of in-house funding but also for mainstreaming the activities within the national systems. It is good to see the Trust moving in this direction. The third feature centres on mobilising the estate community itself towards empowerment. Following the lead given by some estate managers, a number of community-based groups have now burgeoned. Creche Committees, Water Committees, Sports and Youth Clubs, Health Volunteers, Housing Co-operatives, Savings Groups have been set up with both men and women being involved.

Household profile

What then is the profile of a typical estate household? According to the Central Bank Survey on Consumer Finances and Socio Economics (1999), the average family size, although falling, was 4.7 in 1996/97. The other features point to 2.1 income receivers per family, a dependant ratio of 2.7 and an out-migration that was limited to 1.5 per cent owing to the relative lack of employment outside the sector. Data on the number of potential female estate workers having been absorbed by garment factories is somewhat sketchy but a vague estimate is that this could be in the order of 30,000.

Apart from the well-known feedback on basic needs such as housing, water supply, sanitation, energy use etc. it is seen that the highest increase in availability of television (22.5 per cent of households in 1996/97) was the highest in estates. A decline in the incidence of illness has been recorded in plantations but more significant is the lower level of sickness among estate children, unlike in the urban sector where the incidence among children has tended to go up over the previous decade.

The increase in the level of literacy in estates (77 per cent) has been brought about by the improvement in school enrollment and, equally, the importance now being placed on female education albeit at the primary level. Yet, the school drop-out rate at 13 per cent remains high as is the continuing low access to secondary and post-secondary education at 23 per cent and 2 per cent respectively. Unemployment in the plantations at about seven per cent is the lowest and it is also significant that nine per cent or so of estate workers are engaged in some form of subsidiary occupation.

With two-third of the household expenditure being devoted for food and 75 to 90 per cent of men workers regularly consuming alcohol (as highlighted in a recent CARE International study), a situation of "dis-savings" is widespread in estate households leading to indebtedness and consequent borrowings at exorbitant rates of interest. All the same, it is redeeming to note a higher energy intake of 2,674 calories in the estate sector in 1996/97, compared to an island-wide estimate of 2,337. Studies on poverty levels also point to 17.5 per cent of estate households living under the 'poverty line' - 1.4 per cent less than at the national level-l.

Status of women

It may seem paradoxical that despite higher earnings (influenced by the 'over-kilo' factor) by women workers, their male counterparts are, even as we are well into the 21st century, permitted to collect their wages. Equally incongruous is their weak (read nil) representation in trade unions and the fact that women's issues such as maternity protection, family responsibilities, sexual harassment, domestic violence etc. are seldom addressed at union level deliberations.

Consider also the monotony of a tea plucker's job. It has been calculated that about 1,200 hand movements are involved in harvesting 1kg of acceptable green leaf. That makes it 24,000 hand movements (along with an unwavering eye for leaf standard and an alert mind) for a plucker who brings in 20 kg of acceptable leaf in a day. The high level of physical activity, the accompanying occupational hazards (carrying the basket over the head, abrasions to the hands and unprotected feet etc.) and the endless household chores before and after work eventually get to her. It is for this reason that most estate level programmes are focused at women but the need for the management, government and related agencies to attach an even higher priority to maternity health and child care activities nevertheless remains.

Future perspectives

Despite the improvements registered in recent years, the plantation environment lacks the social and psychological acceptability of an agro-industrial park that makes workers comfortable in their avocation. The way to address this problem would be to inject an element of urban culture into estate life, thereby paving the way to create job satisfaction, afford reasonable scope for career advancement and generate freedom to organise leisure and other personal matters.

[The writer is an international consultant on plantation affairs and has been closely associated with post-privatisation developments in Sri Lanka]

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