Some of the promises given by the two main candidates of the last Presidential election had attracted the attention of even the people who are normally not concerned about them. They were interested in those promises especially due to the somewhat amusing competition between the two candidates in those issues and their uncertainty of them being implemented by any one of the candidates after assuming office.
When Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised at his first campaign rally in Anuradhapura to provide fertilizer free of charge for paddy farmers, the United National Party (UNP) Presidential aspirant Sajith Premadasa told that he would do so not only for paddy farmers but for all farmers. When Rajapaksa told that he would fulfill the demand by the estate workers to increase their daily wage to Rs. 1000, Premadasa went one step further and promised to increase it to Rs.1500.
In fact, people who remember the past election promises, had not expected these promises to be kept not only in view of the politicians’ duplicity in keeping promises but also due to the intricacies surrounding these issues. However, President Rajapaksa has announced that his promise to the estate workers would be fulfilled from March 1. Yet, it seems to be not that easy. The government seems to have not consulted the matter with the regional plantation companies that are managing the estates. These companies, according to Tamil media had expressed their displeasure toward the government’s announcement.
The two main Presidential hopefuls seem to have deemed the estate workers’ wage issue important as it had unprecedentedly attracted the interest of the non-plantation sector populace of late, with an unconventional method of agitation by them. Their struggle towards the end of the year 2018 was a far cry from the struggles they had been waging since the beginning of the 20th century. They came out of their locality to tell the outside world the rationality of their struggle. They convened a successful protest in Colombo using social media for the first time. Thus, they succeeded in getting the support of many civil society groups outside the plantation areas. On the other hand, their struggle this time was not seen through the communal prism, as before, by certain mainstream media outlets. They have conveyed the message successfully forcing the plantation companies and the plantation sector trade unions to act.
The agreement in early last year between the estate workers’ trade unions and the regional plantation companies to increase the daily wage of estate workers did not resolve the problem and workers exposed the calculation gimmicks and the deceitfulness of the agreement. It was against this backdrop that the estate workers’ salary issue crept into the manifestoes of the main contenders of the Presidential election.
In spite of the near Rs. 800 billion revenue earned by the garment industry and the more than Rs. 950 billion remittances by the Sri Lankan migrant workers having by now surpassed the revenue earned by the plantation sector; the latter still represents a major portion of the government’s revenue. The annual revenue earned by tea, rubber and coconut plantation sectors exceeds Rs. 300 billion. The engine of this sector is no doubt the workforce, the plantation workers.
Yet, they, as a community live a pathetic life. Though there are individuals in the country who live a poorer life than that of average estate workers, as a community, the people living in plantation areas are the ones who have the lowest living standards in the country. This is clear when we compare the national social indicators, such as literacy, life expectancy, maternal mortality and child mortality with those of the estate sector. They are a community with lowest education and health facilities as well.
As a community, they are the ones who do not claim the ownership at least to one square inch of land on earth or to a house. The large majority of estate workers have been living for the past one and a half centuries in “line rooms”, an abode with a 10x10 feet room and an even smaller kitchen, irrespective of the number and the marital status of members in the family. This situation does not correspond with accepted lifestyles of the 21st century and this is the story behind the cup of tea we enjoy every morning. That is why they deserve a decent salary.
Nevertheless, the government cannot decide the salary structure of a private company, one may argue. Yes, true, but it can intervene. We hope the government would go beyond its announcement to do so.