Pushparani was only 14 years old when she gave up school and started working as a tea-plucker. It was the sole option left in order for her to survive with her grandmother. Today, exactly 17 years later, this mother of five does not feel as if the wages, working conditions or the eternal struggle to put food on the table she experienced as a child, have changed for the better.
Even with her husband’s pay and hers pooled in, putting food on the table for their family of seven she says, is a Herculean task. “I started work for Rs. 50 per day. Now, I am supposed to earn Rs. 500 per day of work. However, the full amount is paid only if we have completed 20 days of attendance. So I earn an average of Rs. 400 per day and my husband who is a labourer earns a similar amount,” Pushparani says.
Her eldest is 14 years old and the youngest is not even one-year-old. Pushparani points out more than half their daily earnings is spent on purchasing milk powder for the kids. “A packet of milk powder costs Rs. 325 and it lasts only for a maximum of three days. My two eldest children are attending school, so the necessary expenses for transportation and stationery always exceed Rs. 5000 per month. On days when my husband or I are unable to find work, we can barely provide the three meals for the children.”
Pushparani is just one such estate worker among the thousands who are faced with many dreary prospects. The estate workers in Sri Lanka have been part of the Sri Lankan society for almost four generations. Four generations have battled with the stubborn estate lands to wield crops which earned Sri Lanka not only foreign currency but a strong brand name in the global market for Ceylon tea. The heritages of these estates are rich but the lives of the estate workers remain bleak as they continue to struggle to make ends meet.
Pics by Lakna Paranamanna
Alcoholism among the estate workers
Raja Premadasa, director of the plantation development and monitoring division of the Ministry of Plantation Industries said that similar to other government sector workers the estate worker receives an average payment of Rs 12,000- Rs 15,000.
“With their attendance bonuses and other allowances they too get an average salary if you count a month’s wages. But the main problem we see is the alcoholism prevalent in these estates. We even conduct awareness programmes to educate them about managing finances but most of the males spend their wages on alcohol consumption” he said. He said that the ministry has initiated programmes for pregnant mothers and children up to two years of age in order to increase their nutrition levels. He pointed out that unlike other workers in the rural areas the estate workers get some of the facilities like housing and education free of charge. “If you consider even in the urban society finding accommodation is very difficult but they have housing facilities for free. We have renovated 30,000 line rooms so far and have constructed rest rooms in their working fields with water and sanitation facilities” he noted. Speaking further he said more than poor wages the estate workers find it hard to manage their expenses mainly due to the alcohol consumption.
“If a female estate worker receives an allowance following childbirth her husband claims the money and uses it to buy alcohol. Among the estate workers we see people who live their lives fairly comfortable and manage their finances wisely. Usually in rural areas we see poverty as we are still a developing country but the conditions are not so harsh in the estate sector. They too experience the usual expenses any family faces with the fluctuating cost of living, ” he said.
Low salaries and poverty cause health and social issues
Due to extreme poverty most of the estate workers cannot afford a nutritious meal and therefore their health levels are poor, claimed chairman of the All Ceylon Estate Workers’ Union, Ramalingam Chandrasekaran.
According to the poverty reports majority of the estate workers who are females suffer from anemia and the rates are similar among children. The infant mortality and stillbirth rates among estate workers are high because they do not have an easy access to healthcare.
Although the healthcare facilities have improved over the years when compared to other sectors, the estate sector does not enjoy all the benefits. A packet of milk powder which is a basic need of an infant costs more that Rs 300 and half of their wage is spent on milk powder if they have two or three children in the household. Thus the other members consume roti which is not a sufficient meal for malnourished children and pregnant mothers” he said.
He said that the societal structure is such that the estate workers continue to live in poor living standards while the plantation owners continue to profit. He said though the estate workers are part of Sri Lanka and four generations have constantly contributing to the national economy all the governments that came into power have failed to fulfil the basic expectations of the estate workers.
Lack of awareness
Punyamoorthi, a neighbour of Pushparani’s has been unemployed for the past few months. He had been employed as a labourer at the tea-factory but after an accident that rendered the left side of his body dysfunctional, Punyamoorthi has not been able to make his contribution to the family expenses. “I fell off a tree during a kovil festival and incurred heavy injuries. Since then the left side of my body has been dysfunctional and I can no longer work,” he says, showing the deep cuts on the left side of his body.
Punyamoorthi and his mother now solely depend on his brother’s wages to survive. Although he has been informed by the doctor that his condition can be improved through a surgery, he hasn’t tried his luck, as the transportation cost to Rathnapura can be hardly afforded when their meager wages are spent on food.
“I have lived in this estate since my birth. In my opinion, the most unfortunate situation of all that befell this estate is the closure of the estate hospital. It was constructed over 100 years ago, during the British rule. But since 2002, the hospital has been closed and even to obtain treatment for a wound we have to travel to the nearest hospital, which is in Kahawatte. The transportation cost amounts to around Rs. 600 and how can these people afford such an amount to travel to the hospital?” he questions.
Unlike Punyamoorthi, his neighbour Arunashanthi met with accident while she was working the nightshift in the tea factory. “I am usually put on duty on the tea-leaf crushing machine. That day I slipped and fell but I didn’t make it a point to notify my accident because I did not think it would worsen,” she says, pointing at the crutches that rested near her the chair she was seated.
Although she did not pay heed to the accident, few days later Arunashanthi was unable to continue work due to a shooting pain in her leg. Upon visiting the doctor, she had been informed that a nerve had been damaged during the accident. Now, she is unable to work and relies on the crutches even to walk the slightest distance. “Although a sum of money is deducted from our pay every month for insurance, we are not aware whether it is possible for us to claim it. Anyhow, since I did not make it a point to notify my accident, I have been informed by the management that I would not be able to get any compensation,” she said, teary-eyed.
Arunashanthi’s wages fed her parents as well as her two children. However, today, they solely rely on her husband’s wages alone to manage family expenses. “It has cost nearly Rs. 13,000 for my operation and other medical expenses. We had to withdraw the little savings we had in order to manage the medical costs. Now, I fear for our future, particularly the futures of my two daughters,” she says.
Low wages and children’s education
Due to low wages, Pushparani is compelled to work during both day and night. “I work as a tea plucker for private plantations during the day and in the night I work at the tea-factory. But on days when the yield is low, we don’t get any work in the factory. . .” She admits her hectic work schedule has affected the education of her children, imposing difficulties for her eldest child to attend school. “My three youngest children do not attend school so they have to be under someone’s care when I go to work during the day. Most of the families in the estates are not able to leave their children in the daycare centre because it is located about a mile away from our homes. So I am left with no choice but to keep the younger children under the care of my eldest until I return home,” Pushparani confesses.
The line-room Pushparani lives in, has no supply of electricity or water. Every day they are forced to walk many miles to bring clean water. “Lack of electricity does not affect us much because we have been used to it. But the lack of proper sanitation facilities affects our families heavily, especially the children,” she says.
Estate workers should be entitled to monthly salaries
J.M.A Premaratne, secretary of All Ceylon Estate Workers’ Union stated that the estate workers are deprived of the benefits the other employees are entitled to mainly because of the daily wage system.
He stated that estate workers are paid on both the piece rate and the time rate basis which according to him are disadvantageous to them.
Mr. Premaratne said the other employees in public and private sectors are getting paid either on the time rate or the piece rate basis but estate workers have to satisfy the both the requirements to be entitled to the full salary.
“The estate workers are getting paid a daily wage of Rs. 515 provided that they have 75 per cent of attendance. But they have to be on the field from 7.30 am to 5 pm to get a full day’s wage. Further they have to give the plantation a set amount of plucked tea leaves at the end of a working day which differs according to the area. In the hill country, a worker needs to pluck 18kgs of tea leaves per day and in areas like Deniyaya the amount is 25kgs. If the worker cannot produce this amount though he has worked the set time period he is only entitled for a half-a-day’s wage” he claimed.
He said that the current plantation managers are obsessed with profit generation; as a result of that the management of the plantations’ conditions such as the soil quality and yields are neglected. Hence, an estate worker has to somehow produce the set amount of tea leaves to be entitled to his full wage even if the soil is not rich enough to generate high yields.”
He said the uncertainty of their wage rates is the main problem faced by the estate workers and charged that the collective agreement between the plantation owners and a handful of unions get to decide the conditions of these payments. “There are over 70 estate sector trade unions. But only 12 are signing the collective agreement which decides the wage rates of the state workers. This is the cause for many of the wage anomalies in the estate sector as the plantation owners attempt to scrap the benefits of the estate worker to maintain their high profits” he said.
He said that their union is currently campaigning for the monthly wage system for estate workers to lay the foundation for a discussion at the upcoming renewal of the joint agreement which is in March 2013.