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Contract plucking helps overcome labour shortage

Nearly 15 years after becoming Sri Lanka's first tea estate to launch 'contract plucking' of tea, the success enjoyed by Endane Estate managed by Kahawatte Plantations PLC offers a compelling case study.

Contract plucking, in which workers are given the responsibility of managing plots of land, was launched on a small scale in 2000 at Endane Estate, largely in response to the acute labour shortage faced by the company.

While 900 to 1,100 workers were needed to manage the over 450 hectares of tea cultivated land at the time, only 400 to 500 workers were available.

Due to the worker shortage, the estate was unable to fully use valuable tea growing land and harvest available leaf at the appropriate time and had to face encroachment by villagers into uncultivated land in addition to crop and financial losses.

Kahawatte Plantations thus introduced the contract plucking method in its 'Delwala' Division, where workers were designated to manage specific plots of tea cultivation.

On the days on which the workers were not allocated work on land managed directly by the company, they work on the designated plots.

The company purchases leaves plucked by the workers at 64% of the 'bought leaf' rate, with the deduction being made to recover the cost of inputs provided at the company's expense such as fertiliser. However, many key inputs and knowledge of good agricultural practices are provided free by the company.

In addition to the wages paid by the company for regular work, families with two or three members engaged in contract plucking earn up to Rs. 18,000 a month as additional income from this activity alone during the high cropping season.

Endane Estate has minimised issues associated with the labour shortage and harvests the maximum using this method, thus offering a mutually beneficial solution.

Numerous other benefits, including greater worker motivation arising from the feeling of managing a plot of land on one's own has led to management and workers alike advocating the use of the model.

Poonaswamy, a worker engaged in contract plucking since 2000 at Endane Estate, said that he met the medical expenses of one of his children who fell ill, amounting to several lakhs, entirely from the income earned through contract plucking.

Kanapathy and Wijeykumar, workers engaged in contract plucking at Endane for long periods also expressed their approval of the contract plucking method.

"Now we can spend money on children's schooling and to buy household goods since we get an additional income through contract plucking," Wijeykumar said.

Earning an additional income within the estate itself, without having to travel outside for extra work, is a relief, Kanapathy said.

The initial success of contract plucking led to greater adoption of the model within Endane Estate in 2002 and elsewhere thereafter.

Today, approximately one-third (37 percent) of the cultivated tea land at Endane Estate is managed through the contract plucking method and 322 workers of the estate manage contractual blocks.

Seven to eight other estates managed by Kahawatte Plantations also follow the model.

Several other Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) too have adopted the system and many leading figures in the plantation sector have said that the model has the potential to address many key issues plaguing the system, including high labour costs and labour shortages.

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