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Planters renew call for alternative worker wage model

20 January 2015 04:22 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The Planters’ Association of Ceylon (PA) said t hat they will be lobbying for an alternative payment strategy such as a contract or an ownershipbased structure for estate workers, in face of unsustainable wage increases, during a round table discussion yesterday.“We need to move away from a wage-based payment structure,” Sunshine Holdings PLC CEO Dr. Dan Seevaratnam said.


PA Chairman Roshan Rajadurei said that future wage increases cannot be stopped and that the workers’ unions pressure Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) if the guaranteed daily wage is not paid, no matter the level of productivity.He said despite being obligated to work eight hours a day, some workers, especially males, leave after four hours of work to seek jobs elsewhere.“When a worker wakes up in the morning, he knows, whether sun, rain or hail, he will be paid Rs.687 a day, even if he picks only four to five kilos, even though the breakeven is 18 kilos,” he said.


He noted that tea pluckers in Sri Lanka are the highest paid in the world, compared to Rs.443 in Kenya, Rs.426 in South India and Rs.202.35 in Assam.
Rajadurei also said that the 250,000 estate workers and their 750,000 dependents are well looked after by the RPCs by providing housing, healthcare, community services, running water, electricity and education.However, he said that Sri Lanka has the lowest labour productivity, with workers picking an average of 18 kg a day, compared to 48 kg in Kenya, 38 kg in South India and 26 kg in Assam.


Dr. Seevaratnam said that the fault is not totally that of the workers, as land productivity, which is low in Sri Lanka, as well as other factors also play a part in this.Rajadurei said that moving to a contract-based payment structure, under which a worker is paid depending on the weight and the quality of the tea leaves that were plucked, would seem more viable.“They are not motivated. We have something called the rush season, when we have cash pay or contract plucking. In 10-12 minutes they pluck a kilo,” Rajadurei said and hoped that this could be implemented permanently.


Meanwhile, the PA is envisioning giving the workers or a collective workers’ society ownership of the tea land as an ideal final model.
Currently, the state owns the land, with RPCs working on lease till 2045.“We’ll let the workers do what they’re good at - bringing us the leaf - and us RPCs will do what we’re good at - taking the leaf, processing it, branding it and selling it,” Dr. Seevaratnam said.


International Labour Organisation Senior Programme Officer (Employment) Shyama Salgado said that younger people have been observed to continue a livelihood if they owned the land in which they worked.Retaining the workforce has been a major concern of the PA, as they believe that younger generations prefer to work in cities.


Dr. Seevaratnam said that viable practices, such as providing the workers with housing, medical care and support, will continue under the new models. Rajadurei said that under the current wage structure, RPCs have been incurring losses for the past three years and the situation will continue this year as well.“RPCs have incurred a cumulative loss of Rs.0.5 billion in 2012 and it has got worse in 2013 and 2014,” he said.


The cost of producing a kilo of tea is around Rs.440, with labour amounting to 67 percent of total, while at the Colombo tea auction last week, the average price per kilo of tea was Rs.422. The situation is bound to get worse with the continued crises in Russia and the Middle East, which absorb 70 percent of Ceylon tea exports. Rajadurei said that RPCs have had to mortgage their lands to gain funds to pay for worker welfare and housing development and had no way to spend on other improvements like machinery upgrades. The next wage negotiation with the trade unions is due to take place in March.
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