1 June, 2020

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From Virtual Slavery To Penury: The Plight Of The Plantation Workers Of Sri Lanka 

By Hemasiri Perera and Prasanna Kotalawala –

Scarcely two decades had lapsed after the surrender of the Kandyan kingdom when the trek of the Indian Tamils commenced in 1817 to 1880, which was no less arduous, cruel and degrading than what the American Negro was subjected to in the bowels of slave ships that traversed the Atlantic at this time.

The rape of the forests of Lanka had commenced and the slave drivers to be, in the guise of Head Kanganies sent out by the colonial land grabbers were scouring the poorest villages of South India for human beasts of burden to become virtual slaves on the plantations of what was then Ceylon way back in 1862 and still continue to be the miserable victims of the present estate management whose ulterior purpose appears to be is to own these valuable lands at the expense of the existing crops.

Once craftily enticed it was a short sea crossing via the Palk straight and a long land trek across the then arid mostly abandoned northern central portion of the island to the ill gotten holdings of the colonial masters in the central hills. The survival rates of families that undertook this hazardous journey is appalling to recall. Not only did they succumb to the scourges of cholera and smallpox they brought along with them but also to malaria that was rampant in the region and also exposed to the dangers of wild beast and poisonous serpents. They were forced to cross to arrive at the more salubrious hills of Matale and Kandy and the further up the mountains to Nuwara Eliya and beyond. The colonial masters were allocated land free of charge to set up their plantations and achieved a double whammy because these unfortunate humans decimated the indigenous populations of the North Central Province (NCP), which survived after numerous invasions by eking out a living on chena and tank bed cultivation on reservoirs breached by previous invaders of the island!

Thus began the tragic story of the Indian plantation slave worker the details of which are too long, numerous and sordid to be vented in a short epistle as this.

In the post-colonial era large number of these plantation workers who have lived most of their lives in the estates was forced to repatriate back to India in 1964 under the Sirima–Shastri Pact (also known as the Indo-Ceylon Agreement). It has to be grudgingly admitted, that the only ray of hope that they ever glimpsed is when JR Jayewardene in 1980s gave those who remained citizenship to gain absolute political power and hardly out of sympathy and which power has spiraled the country in to a black hole! This legislation however, enabled these workers voting rights and a guaranteed wage system.

The successive governments have continued to overlook one of the most important workforces without whose tireless and disciplined labour this entire process would grind to a halt.

Suffice it to say that enough of them survived for almost two centuries to enable us to trace the ignominy of the ostracism that goes on to this day.

Currently over one million workers are directly or indirectly employed in the tea plantations. Out of this a large proportion of the workforce is women who are burdened with excessive demands to contribute to plantation work load in the field and factory. Although these workers’ contribution to the country’s export revenue which is considerable, benefits have not trickled down to them and continue to be exploited since the colonial times.

Workers are paid a basic wage of Rs 500 and a price share supplement of Rs 30 a day, an attendance allowance of Rs 60 a day and a productivity incentive Rs 140 per day. Those who achieve a daily target of 18 kg of plucking are entitled to an over kilo payment of Rs 30 for each additional kilogram. However, as a result of continuous struggle by workers and Trade Unions a two year Collective Bargaining Agreement between Regional Plantation Companies and Trade Unions was signed in 2019 resulting in wage revision. The basic wage was raised up to Rs 700 and the Price Share Supplement (PSS) payment to Rs 50.

In spite of all these wage hikes and revisions the estate sector continues to lag behind the rest of the country in measures of development. Hence, on the plantations mayhem reigns! Not only is the worker denied a living wage and discrimination between genders is rampant. Women work longer hours often exposed to vagary of changing weather while the men get away with pro-rata based work. Furthermore, the existing patriarchal culture prevailing in the plantations where men continue to control all income coming to the family has exacerbated the situation. 

This situation is further compounded by rampant alcoholism that has risen its ugly head due to successive governments post 1977 promoting the vice to benefit bar owners who are political stooges.  This has altered the whole social structure of plantation life with chronic absenteeism and domestic violence in particular violence against women skyrocketing to uncontrollable levels resulting in severe consequences.

In addition to the wages workers in most estates receive benefits such as access to meager medical clinic, maintenance of estate housing, provision of water to the estate houses, creche, and tea rations etc.

Estate housing consists of a row of small houses, each more similar in size to a single room that share a roof which were established during the colonial era and hardly any development had taken place over the years.  However, let us face the fact the worker is not even the owner of the house often only a barrack type hovel they live in. They neither have a permit or deed to improve their abode and scarcely able to say the tree outside the doorstep is their own.

These cramped living conditions in the houses have also threatened the health of the workers and their children. In addition, most estates don’t have proper sanitary facilities for the inhabitants.

Due to the fact that estates and the roads come under the estate property which is private land do not come under Pradeshiya Sabha Act resulting individual houses without addresses for basic services as trivial as postal services which hinder simple communication with police, electoral office and other government departments for which they need to walk fair distances.

The Tripartite Organization namely Plantation Housing development Trust (PHDT) formed in 2002, which consists of Government of Sri Lanka, Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) and Trade Unions formed to implement social development programmes has failed in their services. Its main objective remains providing jobs for political lackeys and goons.

In modern times the trade union leaders who were supposed to represent these hapless people have perched on their shoulders and ascended the political platform and have been feathering their own nests after 1977. This is one of the greatest betrayals of the plantation worker. These treacherous union leaders, it is sad to say have been assisted by the plantation executives appointed under political patronage whose numbers grew to alarming proportions with progressive governments that culminated with what is now the RPC FIASCO!

Twenty four Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) were established in 1994/95 primarily to improve the management of the estates with investments. These estates which are national assets were leased out to them for a measly sum of Rs500/= per annum per estate which were valued at millions of US Dollars. But all what they did was rape and plunder them by diverting the profits to their subsidiary companies without reinvesting in the estates. They even went to the extent of selling lightning arrestors installed by the British companies for the safety of resident estate personnel for millions of US Dollars. Their sole objective is to own these valuable lands at the expense of the crop cultivated on these lands.

Now the despicable RPCs are busy inserting the last nail in the coffin. We as ex-planters see that it is imperative to heal the work force, entice them back on to the estates by offering them every possible incentive the least of all, a decent livable basic wage and last but not least by saving them from the biggest community of parasitic leeches to invade the plantations — the RPC scum!

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Latest comments

  • 8
    3

    Thank you for your thought provoking article .
    They have been working like slaves for 70 years now and yet; they do not have enough basic needs in life.
    So sad to see them .
    So; it is duty of government to help them..
    1) GOOD housing
    2) good schooling
    3) good health service
    4 higher education families.
    5) basic salaries above 30 thousand for all workers.
    And other facilities

  • 4
    5

    What puzzles the visitor is the mushrooming of satellite dishes across the estates. Also the combining of line rooms to make houses. Not to mention the money pouring in from those who have gone to the Middle East. All sure signs of mass poverty are they not?

  • 0
    8

    There is no Sri Lankan Tamil……………. Tamil is a Tamil whether they be from anywhere.
    No… They have been doing a job to earn their living.
    Forced into labour by British or of their own free will because of a living.

    Not only they, we all need the basic needs in life……………. Not only the Estate Workers, there are many more that seek.

    What do you mean by other facilities?? Are you saying Sri Lanka Tamils do not know how much is enough……………..They do know but U R an exception I believe.

  • 8
    0

    Thondamany

    “No… They have been doing a job to earn their living.
    Forced into labour by British or of their own free will because of a living.”

    However the Brits left this island if I remember correctly in 1948. They have been kept in slavery ever since their departure in squalid conditions, forced to live a life with bare minimum, stripped of citizenship right, …………….. subjected regular incidents of violence, ………..

    What’s the matter with you Thonda? The entire country should be ashamed of holding a people in perpetual NEO SLAVERY.
    Even during the recent election campaign the National Hangman agreed to pay Rs 1000, never delivered.

  • 6
    1

    Two centuries of indentured Plantation Tamil labor.
    Tea was introduced to the country by the British and the Indian Tamil labour kept the economy in good shape. Even after two centuries, the lot of these unfortunate people is far from what others enjoy in this country.
    The American Negro,of -course has made vast strides in all areas of civilised life in the USA.
    It is heartening to note the essayists highlighting the misery of the Plantation Tamil labour.

  • 0
    5

    Have the two writers as ex planters actively done anything with regard to this during their careers or after? This seems more like a rant or a case of sour grapes. Maybe they were laid off by the RPC’s

    • 0
      0

      Thank you Ro.sh..n

  • 0
    0

    Estate housing consists of a row of small houses, the official can or estate hospital fix as a example model a application for Telemedicine caring for patients remotely when the provider and patient are not physically present , make it easy to get started
    By keeping things simple. , technology is excellent and very user friendly. then you can expand country wide.

  • 3
    0

    This article is partly true. But the estates i am linked with dont treat women worse than men.
    Also the pharmaceutical criminals are using the estate labourers are human guinea pigs. All kinds of medications are being tested on them and this criminal act has escaped attention so far. This also aligns with what was done to black americans. For example the tuskegee airmen who were given syphillis and not told about it during the ww2 era. And more recently when the water supply in flint michigan was deliberately poisoned. That water serves a mostly poor black area. In australia, the retired aboriginal boxer anthony mundine has accused the government there of causing autism and other disorders among aboriginal children through the vaccines given to them.

  • 8
    1

    It is pleasure to read this article even though contents are very disheartening.
    It is a pleasure to see in a country of.downright racists to see a couple of.enlightened sinhalese to highlight the.plight of another set of human beings transcending racial boundaries.
    We need more people like this to save our country

  • 3
    0

    The real justice to these indentured Tamil slave labourers is not in cosmetic changes to their livlihood like increasing wages, but in redistributing these lands so they can become owners of their production.

  • 2
    7

    The average Tamil tea plucker is an alcoholic wife beater. His wife, a hardworking woman doing her best. The Jaffna, Colombo and Diaspora Tamils would not be seen at the same table as a ‘low caste’ Estate Tamil. Their crocodile tears for these people is just to attack the Sinhala majority and support sedition. All are aware of their devious tricks.

    • 3
      4

      Adrian, wow you have used the word ‘Sedition’. Do you even know what that means gamarala bugger? It is hilarious to see gamayas pick up a few big words in the English language, use it completely out of context and feel so proud about it. I am not sure how a racist like you wake up every day and look in the mirror and move onto carrying out the day to day tasks. Sad fellow!!

      • 3
        0

        An English lesson for the Tamil from the north.
        .
        ‘pick up a few big words’ is plural.
        .
        ‘use it completely’ is singular. You cannot have both for the same Noun in the same sentence.
        .
        ‘ how a racist like you wake up every day and look in the mirror and move onto carrying out the day to day tasks.’

        This should be ‘wakes up’ and ‘looks in the mirror’
        .
        Now, who were you calling a gamarala bugger? Illiterate fool!

        • 0
          0

          a fitting reply to a sick moron. what you say is correct. these arrogant good for nothing jaffna scoundrel consider them as superior. the upcountry Tamils are thousand times better.

          • 0
            0

            Yes,
            the upcountry Tamils are much better because they are compliant and accept the status quo unlike their north eastern counterparts who demand ‘undue’ things like land and rights.
            How dare they?

    • 1
      1

      Adrian Aged 13 3/4

      “The average Tamil tea plucker is an alcoholic wife beater.”

      Is there any male tea pluckers in Sri Lankan plantation?
      Are the female tea pluckers husband beaters?

      “Their crocodile tears for these people is just to attack the Sinhala majority and support sedition.”

      Crocodiles do shed tears, watch this clip:
      Why Crocodiles Shed Tears When They Eat
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iD3PYXIzAOY

      Should we start worrying about your mental health?

  • 0
    1

    One has to admit that this is downright slavery.
    Large majority of them would have been liberated if Sirima – Shastri pact was implemented to the full.
    They were given the opportunity to go back to their motherland and live as equals among their own kith and kin in an environment of their of their own language, culture and religion.
    Why were they incited to refuse ? Why did they choose this pathetic, ignoble life of abject poverty?
    Even at this late stage India should consider giving them dual citizenship and offer them a choice. (To this day their walls adorn Mahathma Gandhi’s picture.)
    And they must be given land around Jaffna with housing with Indian help creating an environment to integrate with the larger Tamil community.
    THIS SLAVERY IN THE ESTATES MUST END.

    Soma

    • 0
      0

      How can slavery end when the Trade Unions representing the workers continue to subtly support the Government and the employer, but collect subscription from the workers and live happily? Fortunately, the present-day youngsters have moved out of the estates to earn their living. This process will cost dearly to the Estates. A decent living wage should be given to them to remain in the estates in decent homes.

    • 0
      0

      “To this day their walls adorn Mahathma Gadhi’s picture”
      Can you suggest a replacement that deserves their veneration.
      Dhana

      • 0
        0

        You are right Dhana . It is a worthy picture for any home. But many in Jaffna choose the picture of the Sun God – shows their mentality.

        Soma

    • 1
      0

      somass

      “Even at this late stage India should consider giving them dual citizenship and offer them a choice.”

      Hindia should seriously consider taking all those descendants of Kallathonies back where they belong.
      If Hindia agrees to take all these Kallathonie descendants back how soon can you pack your bags and leave this island?
      When you go please ensure you take your brethren, Hela, Eagle Eye, Hela, Thondamany, Retarded Shameless Perehera, Dalit, Wimal, Navin Nayake, the clan, Dinesh, Dayan, Champika, ………………………….. with you.

      Surely Seeman will be delighted to receive all his long lost cousins.

      • 0
        1

        NV
        Did I say deprive them of Sri Lankan citizenship? No.
        Why a CHOICE to these unfortunate people is a bad idea?
        Why giving them land around Jaffna is a bad idea?
        Why do you oppose any possible path to come out their wretched life?
        Another question. Why Sambandan wants to settle in Colombo and die among the Sinhalese?

        Soma

      • 0
        0

        NV
        Did I say deprive them of Sri Lankan citizenship? No.
        Why a CHOICE to these unfortunate people is a bad idea?
        Why giving them land around Jaffna is a bad idea?
        Why do you oppose any possible path to come out their wretched life?
        Another question. Why Sambandan wants to settle in Colombo and die among the Sinhalese?

        Soma

        • 0
          0

          There are many Tamils whose lands are still occupied by the military in and around Jaffna.
          Why don’t you ask them to vacate these lands first?

  • 0
    0

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  • 2
    0

    These Indian invaders who had a ride on British imperialists are not different to other Indians who had gone to other British Dominions. Comparing them to African slaves is a gross insult to those Africans who were just beasts of burden. These non violent invaders were free people and they were given the land that belong to their hosts. They were free to return if they wished and some did so. There are Indians invaders in other countries from Fiji to Guyana.

  • 2
    0

    An excellent article which should shame the conscience of other sri lankans. This group has been ignored and exploited by both the colonists and our own governments and private sector . It is so sad and disgusting to see that the accommodation provided to these worker is the same that existed over a 100 years. One small room for the entire family who sleep on the floor, no water or toilet facilities which are shared by several families. no proper schools for the kids and extremely poor medical clinics operated by unqualified doctors. The ratbags that run the trade unions should be arrested and jailed for abusing the funds received from these poor workers. These corrupt scumbags use their position to curry favour with any political party that is in power and have betrayed the workers all along. Successive governments have completely ignored the plight of these poor people and businesses that own or run these plantations are equally guilty of exploitation and abuse. No excuses can also be made for the Sri Lankan citizenry who from time immemorial have not displayed any sympathy or empathy towards helping these unfortunate victims of social injustice and have used the group as a source for employing the kids from the estates as servants in their homes paying them low wages, depriving them of love and kindness, education and treating them as chattels that are expendable. Bar a few families shame on the rest of you for your reprehensible behaviour and lack of kindness and generosity.

  • 0
    0

    The plight of plantation workers in Sri Lanka has long been ignored by all other ethnic communities particularly in the last century. They were completely left out even at the drafting and eventual signing of the first constitution for an independent Ceylon. Leading Tamil and Sinhala politicians at the time, were largely culpable. In fact, history records that during the round-table discussion convened by Lord Soulbury to draft the new constitution, the eminent lawyer-cabinet minister at the time, Hon. G.G Ponnampalam vehemently argued against giving these plantation Tamils citizenship citing that they were too backward to exercise their democratic right to vote. Even the derogatory term ‘kallathoni’ was deliberately coined with the sole purpose of excluding this ethnic group from mainstream life. This curse has lived on for the past 72 years, with a distinct pecking order. Even today, some Jaffna Tamils persist in using the descriptor ‘Thottakkarran’
    to refer to these folks
    .
    We have all been guilty of neglecting these unfortunate people who were the backbone to the national economy. As one visiting American philanthropist once warned, Remember when you sip that cup of tea, you are sipping the blood of these people. Sometimes I wonder whether it is divine retribution that has led this country to what it is today.

    • 0
      0

      If Pal joey’ comments above are correct then what GG about giving franchise to them was correct too.

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