Addressing a gathering at the 163rd Annual General Meeting of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon (PA), Sri Lanka Tea Board Chairman Rohan Pethiyagoda strongly commended the country’s regional plantation companies (RPCs).
Pethiyagoda did so for their continuing success in the face of severe adversity and called for proactive steps to be taken by the government to resolve the long-standing challenges faced by the sector’s labour force.
“I just want to say that in an environment where you come in for so much criticism at so many levels, I am an unstinting admirer of the RPCs. Unfortunately however, the RPCs become a whipping boy for politicians. You rarely hear a kind word said about you from amongst politicians at every level. We often hear that the RPCs are too big, but your average size is just 3,500 hectares which is an area of 7x5 kilometers as a rectangle which is certainly not an excessive amount of land to manage.”
“Hence, I don’t believe any further fragmentation is really justified and I certainly don’t agree with the attrition that we have seen of your land which have been acquired for other purposes without nearly enough consideration being given. Economies of scale and the fact that that 20 RPCs is still a lot of diversity means that in an environment where management capacity, especially at the senior levels is limited we need to be very thoughtful if we are looking at any substantial changes in the model that now exists,” he stated.
Shifting his attention to the current model prevalent in the RPCs, Pethiyagoda called for gradual but sweeping changes to the lives of estate sector employees and their families, noting that many of these issues were not in fact the fault of RPCs.
“We need a new plantation society. You have 200,000 labour residents on your estates and their families – almost one million people – for whom you provide housing, healthcare, education and nutrition. And though I know that many of you will disagree with what I’m about to say, I think the thing that we have failed to give your employees and their families is freedom.”
“The plantation workers are yet to become full citizens in the meaningful sense of citizenship in this country. We have failed to help them integrate with the rest of society. And there are reasons for this; it’s not your fault. It is part of the legacy that you inherited from colonial times, in which transportation was not easy and it was convenient to have your labour resident at their place of work.”
Noting that such a socio-economic model is roundly considered an anomaly in modern times, Pethiyagoda also noted that this feature of Sri Lanka’s colonial legacy had served together with political inaction had resulted in the towns and urban centres in Sri Lanka’s plantation regions had received little to no support to facilitate expansion and development.
“Even as they expand in population they can’t expand in area because they remain tiny islands of humanity in this vast ocean of tea. No government has found the political will to allow these townships to develop into modern, urban units. The rightful place of plantation workers is in towns, not estates.”
“In the future, the model we have today will not persist. Hence it is better to make that transition peacefully and attract people to work in the estates from a diversity of backgrounds rather than look at the principle of indentured labour which we inherited from our colonial masters. It cannot happen overnight but I think it has to happen at some point,” Pethiyagoda predicted.
Drawing a comparison between the socio-economic impact of the garment industry’s establishment in Sri Lanka and that of the plantation industry, he noted that beyond providing employment opportunities, the garment industry was able to spark a social transformation through the empowerment of women, helping them to truly become tax payers and citizens of the country while gaining much greater independence and control over their life and standard of living.
“I think the tea industry is going to see such an emancipation of estate workers in the near future. If it doesn’t, I don’t think that you will be able to say that your plantation industry is truly a part of the modern economy. The unions and the politicians will not do this.”
“They won’t because it pays unions to have members. Because it pays unions to have members and fees and it pays politicians to have workers who will vote on block with unions who are aligned to politicians and parties. The estate labour have become captive into an economy, a social system and into a polity which they have very little control of and which does very little for them. As a result, they have suffered a huge number of social consequences,” he asserted.
Pethiyagoda went on to strongly criticize current and previous governments for consistently making crucial mistakes that drastically hampered the performance of RPCs and the wider tea industry, citing examples of prohibiting the harvesting of timber and the banning of glyphosate.
“The government encourages you to plant fire wood and then discourages you from harvesting it. Even wood lots that you have planted for timber cannot be harvested. This is stupidity simply because the whole idea of forestry is that you harvest it. If you plant a crop, you have to have the right to harvest it. In the 1970s many of your factories owned micro hydro plants, you were energy self-sufficient. The government of the time stated that they had an energy surplus and forced connection to the grid.
“Then two years ago we banned glyphosate. Who should have taken that decision? We have a registrar of pesticides, we have a fertilizer secretariat, we have a medical research institute and a tea research institute. Nobody was consulted. Someone woke up one morning and said: “Oo lets ban glyphosate,” and to this day there is nobody who is accountable for that decision,” he stated.
Heaping further criticism on the government, Pethiyagoda went on to highlight the failure of the Tea Research Institute to recommend a single alternative to glyphosate, in turn caused by a chronic lack of funding to the institute, which last year was only allocated Rs.90 million for research.
“What is the consequence? Many plantation owners have started using alternatives that are not authorized. These are now coming up in various importing countries. Last month we had diuron discovered in Germany in excessive quantities, MCPA has been a problem in Japan. Sooner or later this is going to lead to importing countries putting restrictions on Sri Lankan tea imports and this is a serious problem but I cannot wake up this government to think seriously about it. God knows we have tried.”
“So despite all these handicaps, despite being hobbled at every stage in your 20 year history as Regional Plantation Companies, you’ve done a fantastic job to bring the industry to where it is today and for that you deserve the nation’s gratitude and my thanks, which you have,” concluded Pethiyagoda.