Tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka have long been demanding a salary hike to make their income on par with labourers of other sectors, but for years their call has always gone unheard. The demand by the estate workers is to increase their daily minimum wage to Rs.1,000.
But after a series of discussions, the meeting held on Friday, January 15 between Labour Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and the Chairmen of the country’s Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs), ended with a final proposal. The proposal made by the planters was based on the concept of ‘performance-linked wages’.
Under the final proposal, RPCs are offering a fixed daily wage of Rs.1,105 including incentives and also with the re-introduction of attendance and productivity incentives. The concept based on performance-linked wages is a feature which Trade Unions had strongly and consistently opposed in the past. They have not agreed to the latest proposal and are currently organizing protests and other trade union action against the agreement between the government and the plantation companies.
WHAT PLANTATION COMPANIES AGREED TO
According to the new proposal, the breakdown of the salary is as follows: Basic Wage – Rs.700, EPF/ETF – Rs.105, Attendance Incentive – Rs.150 and Productivity Incentive – Rs.150. Planters emphasized that with the current wages, output and tea prices, they as company owners did their best to introduce the new wage model so as to provide benefits to the workers.
Further to the revised daily wage model, RPCs also proposed the implementation of productivity-linked earning components to ensure that workers are finally provided with effective incentives and are rewarded for increasing their productivity.
The proposed fixed daily wage model will be implemented on three days a week, and on the remaining days, RPCs have called for one of two productivity-based models to be implemented based on how suitable they would be to each RPC’s unique capacity -- enabling workers to earn far more than the fixed Rs.1,105. Under the productivity-linked component, employees can earn Rs.50 (inclusive of EPF/ETF) for every kilo of tea leaf plucked.
"Unlike other trade union issues, this issue has been used by many politicians and even government to steal votes"
WHERE TRADE UNIONS STAND NOW
Planters don’t understand what a wage increase is: Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC)
There are around five main trade unions operating in the estates including the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union (LJEWU) and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC). On Sunday, speaking to Daily Mirror Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) Vice President Senthil Thondaman said the proposal made by the plantation companies could not be accepted because the wage proposal was based on probabilities and not fixed.
“They don’t understand what a wage increase is. They are trying to act too smart. We strongly oppose their proposal,” Mr. Thondaman said. He insisted that the wage increase must be fixed and could not be based on productivity or incentives.
We knew PM’s promise was political: Estate Workers Centre (EWC)
Meanwhile, Estate Workers Centre (EWC) Secretary Duminda Nagamuwa said they always knew that the promise made by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was false and merely a political ruse.
“We knew this promise will be just another political gimmick. Unlike other trade union issues, the issue regarding tea workers salary has been used by many politicians and even government to steal votes of innocent workers. As any government and politician, they conveniently forget their promises after coming to power.
This is not what we expected. This is not what the workers are demanding. They need an increment to their actual basis salary. Under the new proposal, the incentives and allowances are not fixed. They depend on the orders of the companies as to how much of a workload the company owners will require from the workers,” Mr. Nagamuwa said adding that a demonstration would be held in Colombo on Thursday to express their opposition to the new proposal.
"Anyone can give political promises. But, the govt. really should not get involved in wage setting"
Workers’ rights will be exploited more: ‘1000’ Movement
‘1000’ Movement Co-convener Chinthaka Rajapaksa said with the new proposal, workers’ rights would be exploited more and more.
“This proposal has only focused on how company owners will benefit more. They have even included the mandatory EPF/ ETF payment of Rs.105 in the so-called wage proposal. It cannot be added to the total salary increment. Although the government has agreed to the proposal it offers no solution to the problems faced by estate workers,” he said.
"Not only in tea, but in every business sector, salary hikes and other benefits for workers depend totally on cost and revenue"
Explaining the difficulties faced by the Indian-origin tea estate workers have been facing for decades, Mr. Rajapaksa said, “Even after living in Sri Lanka for nearly two centuries from British colonial times, tea estate workers are still trapped under pathetic conditions. Majority of the estate sector workers are not paid a sufficient living wage that meets their basic requirements. The ownership of the line-rooms or land is not given to the family occupying the residence although they live here for generations. There is nothing in their names in this country. They are in a situation where they cannot think of escaping from this poverty or at least taking their children out of this pathetic lifestyle. What these tea companies are doing is inhumane.”
WHY PLANTERS SAY THEY CANNOT FULFIL THE INITIAL DEMAND
This is a business. We are not doing charity: Employers’ Federation of the Ceylon Plantations Group
The Daily Mirror spoke to the Employers’ Federation of the Ceylon Plantations Group Chairman Dr. Roshan Rajadurai and asked how and why they came up with the new proposal though they already knew the stance of the trade unions about the productivity wage model. He said people must look at the facts, figures and also the other side of the coin before sensationalizing the issue by coming to sudden conclusions.
“Not only in tea, but in every business sector, salary hikes and other benefits for workers depend totally on cost and revenue. How on earth can we increase the basic wages to Rs.1,000 when tea production cost is too high? We have been in the tea sector for more than four decades. What tea companies are doing is not charity. It is a business. Although current tea prices are better than last year, we are still not in a favourable economic situation to go for a huge wage hike,” Mr. Rajadurai said.
He also explained how planters expect the new wage model to benefit the workers and tea industry.
“Competition in the international tea market is high. Comparing with the tea workers in other countries, we have not even achieved 10% of their level of productivity. That is why we have brought the new wage model which will benefit workers first and ultimately the country’s economy. With our new productivity-based wage model, workers earn more if they work harder.
The daily wage model is 150 years old and it does not encourage or motivate productivity because workers reach the minimum target and hence receive the daily wage. We have offered a viable option for them. With a productivity-based model, they can earn as much as they work,” Mr. Rajadurai said.
He also gave a response to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement where the PM recently said the government would change the privatisation agreements of plantation companies that do not increase workers’ daily wages to Rs.1,000 rupees.
“If the government is so confident that private tea estates would turn a profit by nationalising them, they should think about the time period before 1995 when the then government was compelled to privatize it because of the losses. The government announced the decision about a salary hike without even consulting us. The Government does not provide for these workers. From salaries to medical facilities, it is the tea companies that are looking after these plantation workers. First of all, the government really should not get involved in wage setting because it is only those who are in the business know the strengths and weaknesses of the sector. Anyone can give political promises. But, when practically speaking, fulfilling such promises is not possible at the moment,” Mr. Rajadurai said.
They are in a situation where they cannot think of escaping from this poverty or at least taking their children out of this pathetic lifestyle - Pix Piyumi Fonseka