Kandy on The Current Situation of the Tea Plantation Workers
A Statement issued by the Chairman of Justice Peace Human Development Human Rights Secretariat (SETIK)
15th December International Tea Day
It is with deep concern that we observe the situation that has arisen in the plantation sector, where large numbers of plantation workers have engaged in industrial action during the last 10 days in support of their demand that their wages be increased from Rs.195 to Rs.300. Since the last collective agreement between trade unions and employers in the plantation sector was concluded, daily wages in tea plantations have been frozen at Rs.135, plus a 60-rupee allowance, which was tied to attendance, workload and prices for tea, with the result that many workers did not receive the full Rs.195, even on the days they were able to work. However, the Central Bank states that during the same period, the average daily wage in the informal private sector in tea cultivation was Rs.304 in 2004 and Rs.300 in the year 2005. It is therefore clear that where market determined rates of wages apply, a worker in the tea sector would be paid in excess of Rs.300 per day.
In addition, inflation has been at 7.6 in 2004 and 11.6 in 2005, and has been much higher in 2006 due to the impact of soaring fuel prices. This means that the plantation worker has had to bear the brunt of the increase in the cost of living. The Budgetary Relief Allowance of Workers Act (BRAWA) (2005) enacted in Parliament and which became effective from 1 August 2005, increased private sector salaries by Rs.1,000 in parallel to the increase in public sector salaries under the Budget Proposals 2005. The Central Bank states that the objective of this act was to protect private sector employees from the rising cost of living.
However, the provisions of this Act were also denied to plantation workers. In these circumstances, it must be clear that plantation workers would be driven further into poverty.
Plantation workers are among the lowest paid and most oppressed sections of the Sri Lankan working class. They live in semi-serfdom with every aspect of their lives revolving around the plantation—from the barrack-style accommodation to the provision of education and health services. National data on poverty indicate that 30 per cent of the estate population live below the poverty line. Nearly a quarter of all estate households are also considered to be poor, as compared to a national average of 19.2 per cent of households. Given that these plantation workers exist at a subsistence level, they have no way of overcoming the continuous reduction in their daily income due to the escalating cost of living.
The impact of this strike on plantation workers is especially critical at this time of year, when many amongst them were looking forward to celebrating the feast of Christmas. To lose their wages due to strike action during this time is especially difficult for these workers; in addition, workers with school-going children who need new books and equipment for the new school year in January will find this reduction in income a great hardship. That they have taken the decision to engage in strike action therefore indicates how desperate they have become under a system where they and their families are progressively denied an equitable standard of living.
The Government in the New Development Strategy announced in the recent budget speech, has declared a vision for the next ten years of “A future of peace and prosperity in which all Sri Lankans enjoy a better quality of life free from poverty and deprivation, through the promotion of opportunities for women and men to obtain productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity”. This is in line with the contents of the election manifesto of His Excellency the President, where he stated that “[he] will support the plantation community to stand on their own like any other citizen….”. Therefore, the Government has clearly recognised the right of the plantation community to live a life of human dignity.
We therefore call upon the plantation companies to arrive at a speedy resolution of this dispute. While we appreciate the efforts of the Ministry of Labour Relations and Employment to negotiate a settlement, the resolution of this problem must ensure that plantation workers, who have for generations contributed towards creating the national wealth, receive a living wage and an equitable share of the wealth created by them.
Rev. Fr. George Sigamoney Bishop Vianney Fernando