Let us begin with the end in mind – ‘Smart plantations’

3 November 2015 06:30 pm - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Most of us are aware that a smart city uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies (ICTs) to enhance the quality and performance of urban services to reduce costs and resource consumption and also to engage with its citizens more actively and effectively. Plantations are resident businesses. Therefore, the employees do not leave the trade but rather make a living inside the industry unlike many other shop and office employees. Smart city applications are developed with the goal of improving the management of the urban flow and paving way for real-time responses to challenges. 

Major technological, environmental and economic changes have generated interest in smart cities. These changes are inclusive of climate change, economic restructuring, the shift to online retail and entertainment, ageing populations and pressure on public financing. The European Union (EU) has devoted constant effort to devising a strategy for the achievement of a ‘smart’ urban growth for its metropolitan city regions. So why not make use of this concept in the plantation industry as well? It is clearly ideally suited to address most of the issues occurring in the plantation industry and furthermore, it can aid in attaining a sustainable continuation of the industry for another century. 

Wage negotiations 
Wage negotiations (or asking for an agreeable and livable wage) involving the plantation industry constitute very reasonable demands from the side of the trade unions. All employees, other than manual grade employees in the plantation industry earn ‘annual salary increments’ irrespective of whether the tea prices have hit rock bottom or otherwise. Why deny this increment only to manual grade employees? Doesn’t this amount to discrimination of labour? 

After all, the employees do not have any ‘control’ over the cost of living as it is beyond their control. This overriding issue regarding employee wages must be perceived not only as a factor of the cost of production but as the sole means of living as well. It must be mentioned that the plantation industry continued to be in existence since nationalization due to the fact that these trade union leaders have been fighting to obtain a livable wage. Otherwise, most of the employees would have migrated elsewhere by now instead of sticking with plantations, thus pressing the industry to closure. 

The current shortage of manual workers in the industry and the inability to attract Gen Y employees act as evidence to what is stated above. Contrary to what most people think, such employees have not stayed due to the capabilities of many CEOs of these entities who know mostly how to ‘nationalize losses’ and to ‘privatize profits’ through processes best known to them.  

On the other hand, the issue with higher wages has not fallen from the sky. Plantation companies have encountered various opportunities and many years of time to develop strategies to shed excess fat and become lean since the very beginning. However, sadly and not surprisingly, the attitude has always been a ‘let’s wait and see’ notion. 

The CEOs of Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) ought to have known the value of driving organisations towards a recognized vision through winning strategies. It is a worthwhile effort to look at the expected functions of a CEO according to the international standards, as the predominant issue with the plantation industry is the lack of competent CEOs. 

The definition of a CEO’s job according to the ONET web of the United States of America is to “determine and formulate policies and provide overall direction of companies or private and public sector organisations within guidelines set up by a board of directors or similar governing body. Also, to plan, direct, or coordinate operational activities at the highest level of management with the help of subordinate executives and staff managers.”

The basic knowledge a CEO should possess to discharge duties as a CEO, according to the same website mentioned above are as follows: 
  •    Administration and management — Knowledge of business and management principles involved in strategic planning, resource allocation, human resources modelling, leadership techniques, production methods and coordination of people and resources. 
  •     Personnel and human resources — Knowledge of principles and procedures for personnel recruitment, selection, training, compensation and benefits, labour relations and negotiation and personnel information systems. 
  •     Customer and personal service — Knowledge of principles and processes for providing customer and personal services. This includes a customer needs assessment, meeting quality standards for services and evaluation of customer satisfaction. 
  •     English language — Knowledge of the structure and content of the English language including the meaning and spelling of words, the rules of composition and grammar. 
  •     Law and government — Knowledge of laws, legal codes, court procedures, precedents, government regulations, executive orders, agency rules and the democratic political process. 

It is the duty of the government to lay policies that only the competent manage these business entities worth of national economy. Most managers, staff and even employees are totally aware of the handful of CEOs who perform well and the CEOs who clown about whilst assassinating their own character. There is no need to elaborate on this point as we live in a country in which these are issues regarding the national intelligence. 

Appeal to Mr. Minister
If some of those CEOs had lived up to the expectations of the above description (at least!), it can be rest assured that the prevailing trivial issues would not have existed. This is the main reason that we must ask the government to regulate certain functions similar to the method the US government utilizes to carry out its functions. We need to understand that this will not be an action of bootlicking the west but rather admiring and learning from them, wherever it is appropriate and relatable. Mr. Minister all these issues are because we fear that certain sections of this industry will do their best by brainwashing you to steal the public through the treasury. It happened twice in the history in 1992 and in 2015 and we must not pave for history to repeat itself.  

Watawala, Kahawatte, Bogawantalawa and a few other RPCs were not funded by the Tea Board with millions to develop brands and launch them in the international market place. Hats off to all the CEOs involved in that notion. 

Mr. Minister, having a father who created history by completing most of Mahaweli within six years, we believe that you can solve this problem and transform plantations managed by RPCs into ‘smart plantations’. This will be a milestone achievement as a country because we will be the first to do so in the whole world. Let us back you and let us start with the ‘end in mind’. 

The Ceylon Planters’ Society has publicly announced our target of US $ 10 billion by 2020 which falls within your tenure in office. We also need a national pay policy so it will be favourable to hire services of ‘compensation benefit specialists’ and develop ‘national pay policies’ which will have a tremendous impact on the forward planning of the industry and also on the Higher Education Ministry. Furthermore, this movement will have an effect on the national budget. We request you to visit the ONET website for a deeper understanding of the importance of a national policy level.

Thondaman is not only a leader to the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC). Those who know about him are fully aware of his unique character. He can be approached by any employee in the industry whether he is a member of the CWC or otherwise. This is due to his lifelong experience and competence in the plantations industry. Therefore, we must consider him as an asset. Unionized employees are not a threat but a blessing in many other countries.

Both Karu Jayasuriya and Lakshman Kiriella have much-needed historical knowledge on the perennial issues faced by this poorly managed industry which is of paramount importance. We believe that this industry can provide many more jobs and this industry should be looked at from the view point of Ranil Wickremesinghe in generating one million jobs as well. 

It is extremely sad that the members of ex-planters (including certain CEOs) and current planters of the Ceylon Planters’ Society (CPS) have not been requested to participate in any of the ongoing discussions. We believe that the CPS can help immensely to solve the issues of the plantation industry, which is closer to our hearts as well. However, some of us bear the opinion that power is in the ‘process’, but this being the 21st century, we need to realize that the major problems are yet to arrive, unless we recognize them today and address them right now! 

Such problems of national level cannot be solved in board/discussion rooms. It is safe to state that discussion rooms are needed only to shake hands. This makes absolutely no sense and Mr. Minister, we are sure you side with us on this point. For that we are with you. People of this country should not suffer for sins committed by other people. If there are no responsible CEOs, they must be held accountable for their actions whilst we keep in mind to appreciate and recognize the minority of CEOs doing their jobs right. Let us distinguish the men from the boys.

Quality replanting a must 
In conclusion, the productive phase of the life cycle of a crop is to be maintained at whatever cost.  Therefore, quality replanting is a must. At the same time, we must note that no businessman is going to invest in the industry for the long run when he does not own the business entity concerned. This is another fault of government planning. A good majority of the fields in the RPCs have passed their prime due to both reasons above.  So it is not fair to probe for high intakes from weak bushes of tea and ‘bark less’ rubber trees. Taking the coconut plantation into consideration, it is a totally different scenario but also has to be handled fast. In comparison to our neighbour in Tamil Nadu, which has 30 nuts in most bunches (which they pick eight times a year), we, in Sri Lanka, have 52 nuts per tree for the whole year. Thereby if the cost is high, alternative methods must be looked at. There are plenty of employees within the executives, staff and the worker cadres who would like to contribute in this direction. Still, incompetency in management is not an answer to harness all such opportunities unexploited in the past. Innovation is the ball game all over the globe and therefore it must be utilized.

Wages are not the right indicators either and due to this, all focus must be on the total compensation package. It is only right to obtain services of compensation and benefit specialists. The workers are asking for a livable wage and not some pittance to build castles. 

This again falls very much within the purview of a competent CEO and has nothing to do with a minister of a ministry. Nevertheless, it is up to the minister to take suitable actions against certain CEOs of RPCs who know only to pressurize employees for higher outputs without direction, guidance and facilitation of the plantation agri-business processes. The owners of the RPCs have a role to play so if their CEOs have not shown performances that are up to expectations and standards then the only solution is to replace them like what is done elsewhere in the world. Can we ever imagine of a situation whereby a CEO of blue-chip companies like John Keells, Aitken Spence or Hayleys go to the respective minister begging for funds which they have a right to ask for? No. Instead, the CEOs of RPCs are managing their companies in such a manner that the minister is compelled to cause more of a burden to tax payers and innocent citizens of this country. 

The services obtained from a compensation or benefit specialist must lead to the pay policy of the plantation industry. Also, the minister must move on with day-to-day affairs such as considering the ‘smart plantations’ (as described above) as a favourable method to retrieve this ailing industry keeping in mind that this concept will support a revenue of US $ 10 billion by 2020. Mr. Minister your heart is close to the plantation industry and the support you ought to get from the rest as indicated earlier should be sufficient to navigate this industry to a great climacteric point whilst supporting the employment generation concept of the prime minister. It is very evident that these accomplish as sure fire strategies in taking Sri Lanka to the next level. 

(Lalin I. De Silva is the former Editor of Ceylon Planter’s Society Bulletin)
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  • Ian Gardner Sunday, 08 November 2015 03:29 AM

    This is a good article highlighting the fundamental of good management; a fundamental known to good managers but not those elevated to positions for which they do not have the competence to fulfil properly. Essentially, good management consists of POC = Planning, Organisation and Control and those in management MUST have the skills to fulfil this; being a relative of some incompetent high up is not a qualification which will bring good results.

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