Over A Cup of Tea
Estate workers’ pay hike discussions continue :
Despite the assurance given by plantation companies to raise the
current daily wage of estate workers from Rs.620 to Rs.730, estate
workers continue their protest demanding a daily wage of Rs.1000.
Plantation sector trade union leaders claimed they are yet to agree on a
final wage formula and that another discussion has been scheduled for
October 13. Several rounds of talks held between plantation trade unions
(TU) and employers chaired by Labour and Trade Unions Relations Minister
W.D.J. Senewiratne regarding the increase of wages of estate workers
ended without a consensus. Some plantation sector TU leaders stress the
need for jointly initiating a dialogue with the Employers’ Federation to
solve the wage hike issue .
Thousands of tea estate workers in areas such as Haputale,
Bandarawela, Nuwara Eliya, Maskeliya, Hatton, Nanu Oya, Kandapola,
Bogawanthalawa and Yatiyantota have been protesting for over a week,
demanding a daily wage of Rs.1,000, which estate owners deem high,
citing the current ‘risk-prone’ business environment. Estate workers’
wages were due for revision last year, when the agreement signed in 2013
expired on March 31, 2015. Protesting estate workers point out that
although it’s over a year since the agreement was signed, their wages
are yet to increase. As per the 2013 agreement, the daily wage of an
estate worker is Rs.620 including EPF, ETF and an incentive linked to
the number of days of labour. The Employers’ Federation told the media
that discussions are underway on a new plan to increase wages based on
According to Government records, over 200,000 people constitute the
labour force in tea estates. Tea is Sri Lanka’s second largest export
commodity, accounting for about 13 percent of total export earnings.
However, in 2015, export earnings from tea declined significantly, by
17.7 percent to US $1.34 billion. It was the lowest value in five years,
according to the Central Bank Annual report, which attributed the
decline to changes in the global economy.
Leader of National Union of Workers and Minister of Hill Country New
Villages, Infrastructure and Community Development Palany Thigambaram
speaking to the Sunday Observer said:
“During the last general elections, Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC)
Leader MP Arumugan Thondaman gave false promises to the plantation
workers pledging to increase their daily wage to Rs. 1,000. At present,
a consensus has been reached to pay a daily wage of Rs.730 to a
plantation worker.. Now tea prices have dropped and the tea industry is
faced with its own difficulties. However, Thondaman misled the estate
workers by giving them false promises to win the election. If the loss
incurred by the plantation companies escalates, plantation workers will
also have to face more hardships. Therefore, I request to pay Rs.730 to
estate workers at this juncture and increase their daily wage up to
Rs.1,000 once the tea prices pick up. However, estate workers have not
yet reached a consensus to accept the Rs.730 daily wage and are still
engaged in their protest campaign”.
CWC President MP Muthu Sivalingam told the Sunday Observer:
“There is no strike in the plantation sector and it is only a protest
by the estate workers. We have requested the workers to get back to
work. Ninety percent of them returned to work on Thursday (October 6)
hoping that we would sign an agreement with the plantation companies
soon. Discussions were also held with Labour Minister on Wednesday
(October 5). We explained our position and the Minister explained the
planters’ position. Now, the federation has sent a note to the Labour
Minister that a daily wage of Rs.730 will be paid for estate workers for
four days and the remaining two days, their salary to be decided based
on the weight of the leaves plucked. The payment for the two days is to
be calculated based on productivity, with a basic wage of Rs. 500. But
we can’t agree to this and we demand Rs.730 for all six days of work. We
have categorically told them this is a matter for further discussion. It
should be discussed with the plantation companies to reach a consensus
because they have taken a decision on their own. We will have another
discussion with Labour Minister and plantation companies on October 13.
The Rs.1,000 daily wage demand by estate workers is fair, but,
unfortunately the industry is collapsing day by day. This is the reason
we are unable to persuade them. In a situation where prices of goods
have increased, the demand made by the estate workers is reasonable. It
is not easy for them to conduct their livelihood and survive in the
MP Sivalingam said:
“On the other hand, plantation companies only concentrate on
harvesting tea leaves. Proper agricultural practices are not adopted in
the plantation sector. For example, they don’t weed or clean the field.
The lack of an effective weed controller has resulted in the drop in
land productivity and tea production. There are lots of dangerous
creatures in the fields. We have heard of even leopards being found in
some areas, such as, Dayagama, Maskeliya and Nawalapitiya.
The companies should be concerned about the workers, but they only
concentrate on plucking tea leaves. If they continue like this for
another year, the tea industry will collapse. To overcome the present
situation faced by the industry, everybody should get together and do
The Government has come into the scene but they are just mediating.
It’s not enough. The Government should consider the plight of the
plantation workers and provide some relief.
In addition to the wage hike demand, the plantation industry has been
plunged into further difficulty with the ban on chemical weedicides for
plantations”. Labour and Trade Unions Relations Minister
W.D.J.Senewiratne told the Sunday Observer that plantation companies
held discussions on October 4 and 5 and certain proposals were made, but
the discussions had ended without any definite decision. He said,
“Plantation Minister Navin Dissanayake had a discussion with
plantation company representatives on October 5 and I had a discussion
with other trade unions. We were able to reach a compromise to pay a
Rs.730 daily wage. In addition, there are some minor issues to be sorted
out which would be attended to in the next few days, when the Leader of
the main trade union, CWC Arumugan Thondaman who is currently in India
returns to the country. Until then, plantation companies have decided to
pay Rs. 730 per day to the estate workers.
However, the Rs.1,000 daily wage demanded by the plantation workers
is not possible at this juncture due to the prevailing economic
situation. At present, tea prices have dropped, while the rubber
industry has also been seriously affected. So, the discussions with the
estate workers and other parties have been temporarily suspended. We may
be able to resume discussions when the trade union leaders are ready to
sort out the issues. At present most of the estate workers have reported
back for duty”.
Meanwhile, the Leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance and Minister
of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganesan
told the media that the protests were independent and spontaneous and
reflected the plight of the estate workers.
“They are a historically oppressed community that has toiled in the
estates for the country’s prosperity. Their demands should not be
ignored,” the Minister told at a recent press briefing.
Leader of the Upcountry People’s Front and State Minister of
Education, V. Radhakrishnan commenting on the issue of the estate
workers’ pay hike had told the media that the ongoing issue will be
solved only when all trade unions in the plantation sector unite to
discuss it with the Employers’ Federation. Minister Radhakrishnan had
stressed the need for jointly initiating a dialogue with the Employers’
Federation saying that it will benefit the estate workers.
The Employers’ Federation is unafraid of the trade unions as they are
aware of the divisions among them, he was quoted.