The agreement between the estate workers’ trade unions and the regional plantation companies to increase the daily wage of estate workers from Rs.500 to Rs.700 does not seem to end the struggle for higher wages by the said workers. The issue has to be resolved soon, not only because of the workers’ struggle for a Rs. 1,000 daily pay might severely affect the plantation industry, but also they deserve a higher salary.
Although the main plantation workers’ trade unions have agreed to the new offer by the regional plantation companies, workers are not going to get a salary increment of Rs. 200 in reality. They have earlier been getting a basic salary of Rs.500, a price share supplement (PSS) of Rs. 30, an attendance allowance of Rs. 60 and a produce incentive of Rs. 140, totalling Rs. 730.
According to the new agreement, the Plantation Industries Ministry says that they would get a basic salary of Rs. 700, an increased PSS of Rs.50 and EPF and ETF of Rs. 105, totalling Rs. 855 for a day.
However, workers say that they have been duped by the plantation companies and their own trade unions by counting the EPF and ETF benefits, with the basic salary.
They argue that they would get only the increased basic salary of Rs. 700, an increased PSS of Rs. 50 and an increment of EPF and ETF of Rs. 30 for the increases Rs. 200 salary, totalling Rs. 780.
They say that the attendance allowance and the production incentive they had been receiving earlier have been scrapped, under the new agreement.
The plantation Sector had been the main income earner for the country since the mid-nineteenth century until the Sri Lankan economy was diversified to some extent with the introduction of the Open Economy in 1978.
In spite of the Rs. 760 billion revenue earned by the garment industry and the more than Rs. 950 billion remittances by the Sri Lankan migrant workers, especially in the Middle-Eastern countries having by now surpassed the revenue earned by the plantation sector; the latter still represents a major portion of the Government’s revenue.
The annual revenue earned by tea, rubber and coconut plantations is around Rs. 300 billion. The engine of this sector is no doubt the workforce, the plantation workers.
Yet, they, as a community live a pathetic life. Though there are individuals in the country who live a poorer life than that of average estate workers, as a community, the people living in plantation areas, the large majority of whom are people of Tamil speaking Indian origin are the ones who have the lowest living standards in the country.
This is clear when we compare the national social indicators, such as literacy, life expectancy, maternal mortality and child mortality with those of the estate sector.
They are a community with the lowest education and health facilities as well.
As a community, they are the ones who do not claim the ownership of at least to one square inch of land on earth or to a house. Despite very few people in very few estates having been given houses called “twin cottages” in the 1980s and the government has allocated small land plots with small houses in very few estates recently, the large majority of estate workers have been living for the past one and a half century in “line rooms”, an abode with a 10X10 foot room and an even smaller kitchen. That line room is their sitting room, bedroom and even store room, irrespective of the number and the marital status of members in the family.
This situation does not correspond with accepted lifestyles of the 21st century. This is the story of the cup of tea we enjoy every morning.
The current struggle by the estate workers for a higher wage was different from the struggles they had been waging since the beginning of the 20th century. This time they came out of their locality to tell the outside world the rationality of their struggle.
They convened a successful protest in Colombo recently using social media for the first time. Thus they succeeded in getting the support of many civil society groups.
On the other hand, their struggle this time was not seen through the communal prism as before, by certain mainstream media outlets, which normally portray them as a relatively well-off lot.
Yes, they have conveyed the message successfully.