By Indunil Usgoda Arachchi

After nearly 200 years after the arrival in Sri Lanka, estate workers can still be considered as a community which does not possess the rights and privileges of other ordinary citizens of the country, forcing them to live a miserable life which can only be compared to the conditions of the pre-Independence era. In fact, their grievances are heard only upon signing collective agreements once in two years while their struggle for life is not something which arises only once in two years. The system of delaying collective agreements by years and offering paltry salary increments has to be changed and a proper program should be carried out by the authorities to uplift these people but in which the country has continuously failed.

The latest Collective Agreement on the salary hikes of Estate workers was scheduled to be signed on October 15, this year. However, there is no final agreement on that. Therefore, the affected community had no option other than launching protests in different regions of the country.

Children of estate workers had organised a massive demonstration at Galle Face Green on October 24 supporting island wide protests by the community. It can be considered as the first protest organised in Sri Lanka using social media like Facebook.

“There is no connection of politicians in this. We don’t care about them. We were organised through Facebook. No one influenced us to come here. We love our parents very much. There is no end to their pain. Seeing their pain we came down here to fight on behalf of them. Our only demand is to resolve the problems of estate workers” said R. Sudaharan, a youth belong to a estate worker family in Dayagama, Nuwara Eliya.

None of their parents participated in this protest. Some of them had launched protests in their respective villages. All who gathered at Galle Face Green were children of estate workers. Some of these youths were employed in Colombo. Shop assistants, taxi drivers, businessmen and journalists belong to estate worker families in Nuwara Eliya, Hatton, Thalawakele, Kandy, Badulla, Hatton and Bogawanthalawa were among the participants.

“The world knows Sri Lanka because of us, because of tea. We love this country very much. But the people in the country do not love us. Now the price of rice and gas are increased every month. But our salaries are not increased. How can we run a family with a monthly salary of 500 rupees. We kept our eyes closed for years. Patience is no more with us” Sudaharan further commented.

Even though cost of living has increased astronomically and salaries of other sectors are increased and facilitated, the loss of such privileges to the estate workers is a problem which should be looked into quickly and resolved. Plantation companies delayed the salary increase due every two years in 2015 by 18 months stating that plantation companies were making losses. But workers didn’t receive the arrears. After 18 months of delay their basic salary (per day) was increased by merely Rs. 50 in 2016. With that their Basic Salary which was Rs. 450 was increased up to Rs. 500.

The only demand of the estate workers is to increase their daily minimum wage to Rs. 1,000 enabling them to pursue the education of their children. “Now we receive around Rs. 600 per day. Out of which,after some cuts, we receive a monthly sum around Rs. 4,000. It is not even Rs. 10,000 per month. We can’t run a family with such an amount. My parents are estate workers to date. Only we know the pain they are going through. Our mothers have mortgaged their wedding necklaces to feed us. We have no other option than to keep fighting till we win our rights. The Government should visit our estates and support us” said Shanmugadasan, another youth belonging to an estate family in Thalawakele.

Kamaleshwaran, another youth who participated in the protest said that they would not come to Colombo for jobs if they were given a fair salary on the estates. He is also a member of an estate family in Nuwara Eliya.

“Why do they treat estate workers differently? They give us no concessions. Politicians come and go during election time. They don’t even look at us after the election. While we are working on the estates, accidents are quite common with leeches, wasps and leopards. We can’t afford medicine for such accidents with this paltry salary. No one cares about our problem” he complained.

The plantation industry came under the Government in 1972. Then for nearly twenty years government institutions like the Sri Lanka Plantations Corporation, Janatha Estates Development Board controlled the plantation sector. Therefore, salaries of the workers and welfare had been provided with government involvement.

However, after privatisation of the plantation sector in 1992, the responsibility of the living standards of the estate workers has become a problem. Since 1992, their life is determined by collective agreements signed by three parties once in every two years. Plantation Owners Association (POA) and three trade unions (Ceylon Worker’s Congress/ Ceylon National Employees Union and the Joint Plantation Trade Union Center) sign this agreement. According to the agreement worker’s welfare and facilities also must be improved along with their salaries.

Deputy Chairman of the Ceylon Worker’s Congress (CWC) Kanapathi Kanagaraja said that the Plantation Owners Association refused to agree to a Rs.1,000 per day salary. According to him, POA had only agreed to increase the per day salary by Rs. 100 i.e. the Rs.500 wage up to Rs. 600, leading to further discussions with the Government. “The agreement was due on October 15. It was delayed up to 18 months last time too. Estate workers are also humans. They at least deserve the cost of living. That means a minimum of Rs. 1,000 per day. Now the basic salary is Rs. 500 per day. They are not getting other allowances too. Plantation companies sometimes out source people and provide them Rs. 1,000 per day with wage and food. But no such facility is given to the usual estate workers. Either they should pay the estate workers a fair amount or the Government should take over all the plantations” he urged.

Meanwhile speaking to the Sunday Observer Secretary General, Joint Plantation Trade Union Center S. Ramanada said that after three rounds of discussions the POA is refusing to increase salaries more than Rs. 600 per day. They are planning to negotiate with the Government about this matter.

“We requested the companies that the basic wage should be Rs.1000. They only agreed to increase it up to Rs. 600. That is just a Rs.100 increase. We are not willing to accept that. Now the cost of living and everything have gone up. Not only the workers, even members of the family including the school children are affected by the prevailing financial difficulties. The other problem is that some of the estate superintends are recruiting workers from outside. Then they pay Rs.1000 per day and they provide transport and also meals“ said Ramanadan.

They had discussed the matter with the Prime Minister on October 25. Arumugam Thondaman, Vadivel Suresh and S. Ramanada had participated in the discussion representing three trade unions.

“The Government has an important role in this matter. We explained all the details to the Prime Minister. We are expecting a response from the Government. When Minister of Plantation Navin Dissanayake is back in the country, we will discuss with him as well he further said.

However, a member of the POA, Roshan Rajadurai, explained the difficulty of increasing daily wages by more than Rs. 100 due to various challenges faced by the industry. According to him, the drop of tea prices on the world market and the sudden decrease in the exportation of tea to Russia, Middle East and Japan are the reasons for the inability to increase prices more than by Rs.100.

“Politicians came during election times and promised us to create a better future for our children if we cast the vote in favour of them. But it was all lies. Children of all these politicians are educated in good colleges. Now, they live in foreign countries. Let it be Digambaran or Suresh or Thondaman or Mano Ganesan, no matter who comes in to power please give us a salary of Rs. 1,000 to fulfill the basic needs” that was the voice of P. Krishna Moorthy who had come all the way from Nuwara Eliya to attend the protest.

Salary dispute of estate workers | Sunday Observer