In January 2019, Sri Lanka recorded a total value of US $16.4 billion, in exports. Of this sum, the apparel/garment export sector brought in the country’s highest foreign exchange earnings.
The average monthly earning of an apparel/garment factory worker today, amounts to around Rs.34,000/- per month or roughly Rs.2,900/- per day.
Ceylon Tea was the second-highest export earner for the year 2019. The country exported just over 300 million kg of tea to the global market and earned exchange earning of US $1.24 billion.
Yet today, over ten months after Minister Bandula Gunawardane – on January 15, 2020 – announced that the Cabinet had approved increasing the daily wage of a tea estate worker from Rs.750/- per day to Rs.1,000/- per day, the tea estate workers, continue to receive a daily wage of Rs.750/- per day.
In the run-up to the Presidential elections President Gotabaya himself pledged to increase estate worker salaries to Rs.1000/- per day. Unfortunately, these pledges still remain mere promises.
To make matters worse, tea estate workers receive less than 22 days work per month.
At a maximum, a family where both parents work, a family will receive Rs.33,000/- per month.
A basic family unit on the estates, consisting of six persons (father, mother and four children) would need a minimum Rs.100/- per person to have a basic meal per day. In turn, this means an estate worker family requires a minimum Rs.1,200/- per day or Rs. 36,000/- per month to have two meals per day.
According to UNICEF, not surprisingly, more than 40 per cent of children under the age of five on the estates, are stunted. The problem is a long-term lack of nutritious food. This impairs the children’s ability to learn and results in poor health.
Housing conditions on the estates still remain atrocious, with around 250,000 estate worker families still living in single line-room style houses sans running water and individual toilet facilities.
A study by Elizabeth Little revealed, educationally, plantation workers are disadvantaged in comparison with the population as a whole and the rural population in and around the plantation areas. For example, while the national literacy rate in 1981 was 87 per cent, for estate workers it was 67 per cent.
While the situation is not so bad today, the majority of plantation schools located on tea estates offer basic primary school education, with a single teacher in charge of a large group of children ranging from ages five (and below) to 14 years.
Many teachers in these schools according to the CWC are untrained while a number of teachers work on a voluntary basis paid by non-government organisations, who pay them small allowances.
The average pupil-teacher ratio in estate schools is over 40:1, contrasting with the national average of 34:1
Todate, estate trade unions have have not been able to obtain for workers an increased wage of Rs.1,000/- per day.
Way back,Mr. Saumyamoorthi Thondaman called on all estate workers to down tools and join him in prayer to receive citizenship rights. Work on the estates came to a standstill.
After two days of prayer, to prevent mega losses to the industry, the then Government agreed to confer citizenship and voting rights to a community which has lived and enriched this country for centuries.
Trade unions on the estates have been in existence for over 80 years. Media sources using the ‘Right to Information Act’, revealed that trade unions collected around Rs.77 million from workers as membership fees between April 2016 and March 30, 2017.
The present day leaders of estate trade unions seem incapable of obtaining a minimum living wage – Rs. 1,000/- per day – for their members despite former leader Saumyamoorthy Thondaman showing how this could be done.
The President and the present Government received the overwhelming support of the estate Tamil population at both the presidential and general elections.
Since trade unions are not pressing hard for it, perhaps it’s time Government takes the initiative and implements the President’s pledge to increase the daily wage of estate workers to Rs.1,000/-, establish a state university for the students in the estate areas, and ensure new homes be built and provided to estate worker families within his five-year term as President.