Reading some of the views expressed by the Planters’ Association Chairman, it is quite apparent that the tea industry is in dire straits giving a symptomatic impression that viability is being seriously threatened.
Tea industry crisis is heard frequently and repeatedly. Why no remedy elucidated?
We have failed in the search for a sustainable and viable solution to the problems the industry is facing for the last three decades. This is not the time to ask who is to blame or who is responsible. However, this situation would have been avoided at least to a certain extent if corrective measures have been taken by the authorities concerned at the beginning.
Reducing the cost of production and increasing labour productivity alone will not ensure that the industry is able to survive. The primary determinants of cost of production in the tea sector include labour productivity.
It is said that comparatively lower labour productivity but higher labour cost is creating a situation in which the plantation sector is fast becoming financially unviable. There are several reasons for the current position such as low labour productivity including absenteeism, shortage of workers coupled with low levels of social recognition for plantation workers have also been compounded by trends of young men and women seeking employment outside the sector are some of the pending issues.
The high labour cost is mainly due to work norms for such as plucking, pruning, draining, manuring and planting are below the worker capacity. Although the wages of tea estate workers have been raised from 1998, no meaningful measures have been taken to increase the norms to be par with wage hike.
We all know that there is a marked improvement in the estate sector living conditions such as housing, health, sanitation, income levels, etc., and all these facilities are free of charge but we failed in effecting the levels of social recognition. This needs evaluation and grist to one’s mill.
The Planters’ Association Chairman, while addressing the Global Tea Producers’ meeting last year said, “Sustainability of the industry is linked to the sustainability of workers and it is important to raise worker dignity and morale if the industry is to become more attractive to young workers.”
What have we done in this regard? Who is responsible for the worker exodus? Workers who leave cannot be readily wooed back. This is where the voice of unions and the politicians should play an important role. Only, they can prevent the worker exit by negotiating a workable alternative.
The authorities should come out with a formula to improve the cost efficiency, which is a burden on the industry and productivity of the tea production.
The country has failed to consistently adopt and implement a holistic integrated agricultural management policy since nationalization may, be due to lack of funding, coordination, institutional weaknesses, bureaucratic lethargy, politicization, etc., and the result is lamenting over disasters such as the latest losses due to declining prices. The real problem I see is not the inefficiency or low productivity but the low prices we get for our tea. While I do not wish to be controversial, the question needs to be asked is, whether the producer is getting the right price.
It is clear that unless some serious policy decisions are taken based on market dynamics, the tea sector will be heading towards very rough waters.
The Planters’ Association Chairman also made the point that the plantation companies find it difficult to make profits in the prevailing economic situation. It is understandable that the workers are expecting a wage increase and that increase in wage rate will outstrip the rise in tea prices.
It is true that labour productivity must improve substantially for the industry’s survival and the state, estate worker unions and even the workers’ support are needed on a much larger scale if there is to be any sustainable improvement in this regard.
It is urgent that a multitude of issues on the tea industry is addressed and the sustainability of an industry, on which the livelihood of hundreds and thousands of people depend, is ensured.
(Lalin I. De Silva is former Editor of the Ceylon Planter’s Society bulletin)