Next CWC leader will be selected democratically
Plantation companies using leased out lands underperforming
It is not an easy thing for us to buy vaccines for all the people. This is an unexpected pandemic situation
When the companies benefited in the past making windfall gains they did not share the profits with workers
Plans to bring to the notice of President, PM the problem regarding under performing companies
As long as the Rs.1000 basic payment is made it is alright
The CWC will back any demand for development. We will never entertain any unreasonable demand
Vice Chairman of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) Senthil Thondaman in an interview with Daily Mirror shared his thoughts on the plight of estate workers and the leadership vacuum created by the demise of ArumugamThondaman. Hailing from Badulla district Thondaman was a member of now defunct Uva Provincial Council. Thondaman, who was recently appointed as a member of the National Unity and Reconciliation Bureau, is the nephew of the late parliamentarian Arumugam Thondaman. He also responded to a query about the purported tussle between him and the late leader’s son Jeewan Thondaman for the leadership post. Excerpts:
Q You undertook trade union action demanding a pay hike for estate workers in recent times. How successful was it?
It was total success. We expressed our dissatisfaction over plantation companies refusing to provide a pay hike. All the workers went on strike early this month. We wanted to follow different strike actions. But, we restricted our activities in keeping with COVID-19 guidelines. Our primary concern was workers’ safety. But we wanted to convey our displeasure to the company authorities. Finally, the Wages Board decided to increase the daily wage to Rs.1, 000. It means Rs.900 as the basic payment and another Rs.100 as a budgetary allowance.
Q This decision was taken after a discussion at the Wages Board. It was attended by the company officials. There is concern that the companies will increase the basic wage, but curtail other benefits. How true is it?
As long as the Rs.1000 basic payment is made it is alright. Otherwise, they cannot alter the basic norms related to work at the estate sector.
Q The companies also experience difficulties because of the pandemic. If the financial positions of the companies are depleted it will affect workers in a worse way. How fair are you by the companies?
When the companies benefited in the past making windfall gains they did not share the profits with workers. When the companies make losses then the workers cannot take the responsibility. There is one more thing that the companies must understand. When these lands were given on lease to these companies to cultivate the cost of land capital was very minimal. They started making money from the very first day they entered into the lease agreement. So the only understanding was that they should take care of the livelihood, welfare of people and maintain the estates. There was an estate that was turning out 100,000 kilos of green tea in the past, for example.
It is now producing only 30,000 kilos. You see how they underperform. The reason is that the estates aren’t properly maintained. That is why it has come down. For example, I can cite an estate in Uva. It is supposed to use 150,000 kilos of fertilizer for tea plants, but has used only 50,000 kilos. Then, the output also drops. Then, the management says it cannot pay salaries properly. They don’t maintain the estates properly. The Government had to intervene because the companies were not ready at that time to make any compromise. The Government intervened and referred the matter to the Wages Board.
The plantation sector plays a major role in Sri Lankan economy. Ceylon Tea is world famous. I hope the estate managements and the Government will concentrate more on tea production. When we already have a brand, it is easy to market that new brand rather than create new ones. We must plan our marketing in a way that will boost the existing brands.
Q You said the plantation companies that obtained land under lease were underperforming. How big is the problem?
It is a serious problem. I am going to raise it with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. If they obtain land from the Government and fail to perform they should be taken to task.
Q What are the other demands of people in the plantation in addition to the pay hike?
Proper housing with sanitary facilities is another need. There are only 36,000 houses built so far. We need to build another 200,000 houses. We have started our process to build houses. India has donated another 10,000 houses.
Q The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) operates without a leader after the sudden demise of ArumugamThondaman last year. How do you view the future of the party?
We had been working closely with the late leader for several years. He had designated everyone responsibility. He was a successful person. We are still sticking to the same designated roles. We continue to work. He was not only my party leader, but also my uncle. I was closely in touch with him right throughout my life. We know he made decisions to respond to demands. My late great grandfather Saumyamoorthy Thondaman had also been with him. We know their way of working. Using that as a template we take current decisions despite the vacuum created by the loss of our leader.
Q In party politics, leaders matter a lot. How do you fill this vacuum in your party?
The party will choose someone for the leadership in a democratic manner when the situation arises in the future.
Q There are reports of a tussle between you and State Minister Jeewan Thondaman for the party leadership. Do you eye this position?
There is no truth in it. There are various positions within the party. Mr. JeewanThondaman is the General Secretary and I am the Vice President. Both of us cannot hold all the positions. He contests from the Nuwara-Eliya district. But, I am from Badulla. We are not bothered about positions. Positions really don’t matter in this instance.
Q What is your assessment of the current political situation of the country?
The country and the world are reeling under the impact of the pandemic. Every government in the world focuses on containing the spread of COVID-19 while focusing on vaccine rollout. The rest of the other activities have naturally slowed down as a result of the pandemic. It is not an easy thing for us to buy vaccines for all the people. This is an unexpected pandemic situation. Our financial resources have to be channelled to deal with pandemic-related developments.
Q What are the political aspirations of plantation Tamils in your view?
We always stand for the development of Sri Lanka covering all areas. The CWC will back any demand for development. We will never entertain any unreasonable demand.
Q You serve in the Uva Provincial Council. There is a demand for the abrogation of the Provisional Council System. What is your stand?
Definitely, the provincial council system should remain. Politicians are there to serve people. In Parliament, there 225 MPs assigned to serve the people. There are local authorities with elected representatives to serve people. Likewise, there are provincial councils to serve. In the Uva Provincial Council there are 32 people. India played a role in the introduction of the 13th Amendment. But, no Indian is coming to contest the elections here. It is only Sri Lankans who are going to contest. They are going to contest and work for the Sri Lankan people. I am for the 13th Amendment.
As a party representing a minority community we have secured Cabinet posts. The minorities have joined the administrative services. They have become provincial governors. They have joined the judiciary. They have secured every possible topmost posts except the presidency and prime minister’s post. The minorities account only for 20 percent of the country. Therefore, it is not practically possible for them to eye such posts. The minorities have achieved the maximum in that sense. People holding positions should work cordially with the majority community to obtain benefits for the minority communities. If the representatives are not cordial, the community people would be affected.
Q The Government has undertaken to work out a new constitution. What does the CWC expect from the new constitution?
We feel that the minority people should be recognised. Their rights should be accepted in the constitution. But, it has to be done in a manner acceptable to all the parties concerned.