20 July, 2024


“Minimum Estate Labour Wages” & Other Related Matters

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

President Wickremesinghe, drew much enthusiastic applause by his magnanimous promise of an increase of the daily wages of tea (and rubber) workers, to Rs. 1,700/= from the prevailing Rs.1,000/=.

Predictably, this has stirred a “Hornet’s nest,” in the form of protests from the Estate Management sector. It is not unusual for politicians to make rash promises from May Day platforms, which haven’t the faintest chance of implementation. Cheering crowds are the dream of most politicians. But an exalted position of The Presidency of a country, should dampen any craving for the fleeting applause of a mass gathering. On this score, the President has lost. Not a good omen for one aspiring to a further term of office.     

Our plantation sector is exemplary, (perhaps even unique) in the manner in which it keeps its records. Every item of expense, from a broom for the office, to roof repairs to the Superintendent’s bungalow, gets translated into the “cost of production”. So is labour, as a very large cost item. Thus, tinkering with the cost structure is very dangerous, almost irresponsible. I presume that even after acquisition by the State, these time-tested and healthy procedures, are observed.

Photo Marta Urbanik

Naturally, the estate management is deeply sensitive to price changes, be it for fertilizer, fuel or labour.

The Trade unions in the Plantation Sector (for example, the CWC of the late Mr. S. Thondaman), are very powerful. Thus, any attempted retraction of the promised wage increase, will draw a vehement response from the Unions.

The Department of Labour has set up a number of Wages Boards, to establish wage levels that are fair to both Employees and Employers. I have served on one briefly, but long enough to witness the hard bargaining that goes on between the representatives of contending parties. They are by no means trivial, but extremely “hard-nosed.” Thus, irresponsible and hasty changes will meet with sturdy resistance by parties who have laboured hard, to achieve some balance and compromise, and finally to reach some agreement. Any impetuous, ill-considered and rash changes of convenience, will deservedly be strongly resisted. Otherwise, the tortuous negotiations of the Wages Boards will become a mocking irrelevance.

The expected opposition is bound to argue that the present high cost of production and low prices, do not permit them to accommodate any wage increases. This will compel them to abandon production. One understands that rubber prices (as also for tea), have been notoriously wayward, due largely to circumstances beyond our control.

A remedy (even partial), would seem to be, to develop industries that will drive the sector to trade in finished products, (eg. Tea bags or car tyres), rather than as raw material for industries abroad. If a plantation industry is so beleaguered that it cannot pay its labour a fair wage without incurring a loss, then they should be growing something else. The tea industry for example has developed such strengths and disciplines, which if applied elsewhere may offer astoundingly good results.

An industry in the present World cannot survive on unproven slogans. Examples such as Kodak and Remington have disappeared with the advent of digital cameras and Laptop computers. Nearer home, Tea seamlessly took over from coffee which was devastated by the “Coffee Rust” fungus (Hemeleia vastatrix). If tea could do it to coffee, why not something else to do it to tea?   

Drawing on my memory of nearly thirty years ago, there is evidence of the dire effects on the fertility of soils, following long periods of cultivation of tea. It is clear that intensive focus (research) on this matter is warranted.

(i) Soil pH, fertility and erosion

Generally, most crops thrive at a soil pH of around 7.0 (neutral). Tea soils are generally very acidic, with pH values between 4.5 and 5.0. It is to be noted that a single digit reduction indicates a tenfold increase of acidity. Thus, a soil at 5.0, is a hundred times more acidic than one at  ‘neutral’ (pH 7.0). At about 4.0, the soil becomes threateningly infertile. At 3.9, we are told, that only certain Cacti and coarse grasses can exist. We are perhaps at the threshold of disaster.

(ii) Nutrient retention

With the low soil organic matter content, nutrient retention is very low. The belief that “rehabilitation” of areas for replanting, are ”restored” by  two years under Guatemala or mana grass is sadly, only a wishful hope. A trial planting of Guatemala grass for two years, showed a negligible increase in Soil carbon, and that too for about six months.

Soil erosion and fertility loss, is very high on tea land.  Even a moderate shower displaces an enormous amount of soil. (this is one reason why our rivers run brown). Silt recovered from contour drains, in tea, had a nitrogen content near that of pure urea. (about 46%).

(iii) Soil ‘biota’

Even in tea areas receiving nearly 200 inches of rainfall annually, there are hardly any earthworms. This is an indication that all is not well. It  is probable that years of heavy fertilizer, (especially with sulphate of ammonia), have resulted in a low pH and virtual biological sterility. Just as for earthworms, the invisible but no less important micro-organisms, such as those active participants (Nitrifying and nitrogen-fixing), are also probably suppressed. The soil being “dead,” results in even the mildest drought or delayed fertilizer, causing visible distress to the tea. The normal way of dealing with soil acidity, is the farming practice of “liming.” This too has problems when applied to tea. Very heavy (tons of lime per acre), showed miniscule and transient changes.

These aspects are too critically important to ignore and thus urgently demand updating and confirmation.

(iv)  Crop diversification

If painful practices and complex economic analyses, are necessary to validate a profit of a few cents (or single digit Rupees), then one should  conclude that “the game is not worth the candle,” and move on to something different. Here is the rub. After toying around with a large number of food crops, including potato, sweet potatoes, vegetables and some market garden crops including Soya Beans, ginger, fennel, dill, mustard, onion and fenugreek, it was clear that none gave anything like a fair crop. Of particular interest was on potato (my predecessor, Dr Visser was a Dutchman who had worked on potato at Wageningen.

He was thus able to procure quite a number of cultivars for trial. The same sad story. Not a single variety performed well enough. The experience sufficed to convince me that the whole exercise of growing potatoes in Sri Lanka is not a winning game. The unpalatable truth is that we would do better to import our needs, and divert our efforts to grow other crops (but not on tea lands)!

The most sensible option is to aim at an eventual choice of a crop that is economically sound and environment friendly. A lengthy story would not be appropriate here. But tentatively, forests naturally establishing or Bamboo plantations, fuel wood, kapok, indigenous fruits may be considered, among several other options are attractive.

This has become a long story, but I have chosen to comment, hoping to shift our national efforts to fresh and more purposeful debate. This is the best way to “get away from the (political) noise” and focus on what really matters.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Wages are determined by Management.
    Wages should be determined by Management.
    Labour should have the right to contest what they get paid.
    If no agreement ensues, the matter shall be passed over to an arbitrator.
    Politicians, President or not, should not get involved in decision making.

    • 6

      The management as before will have its say.
      Plantation labour should be brought within the same framework as the rest of the employees of the country and the Wages Board should decide wages in line with that for all employees.

    • 3

      A government has the responsibility to rule on a minimum fair wage, which it has not done to this day, and the plantation workers remain the most underpaid workers in the country (excluding of course the unpaid labour of housewives).
      This has gone on for far two long.
      The only way to persuade the greedy management is to withdraw labour. But the unions have been a sell out to the management.
      BTW, there is no room for arbitration because of the system of agreement on wages between the unions and the companies.

      • 4

        This protest about payment of wages to estate workers would not have arisen had they all been Sinhalese. These Tamil laborers are the most neglected people with their children ending as domestic servants.

  • 1

    When the wage was Rs.1000 the exchange rate was Rs. 200/ Dollar. When it went up to Rs. 370 did this people got a semblance of benefit. I know that in all the IT firms they increased the allowances pegging the dollar. Even MASS Holding too increased the salary pegging the dollar. In case of MASS Holding they have to import lot of items and they had to absorb the cost there also. In case of TEA they don’t have to import much than the fertilizer.

    • 2

      “The experience sufficed to convince me that the whole exercise of growing potatoes in Sri Lanka is not a winning game”
      This applies not only to potatoes but many other staples like onions and chicken as well. We simply cannot get the hang of efficient production. It is either a glut (like tomatoes a month ago) or scarcity (like ginger currently).

  • 3

    “President Wickremesinghe, drew much enthusiastic applause by his magnanimous promise of an increase of the daily wages of tea (and rubber) workers, to Rs. 1,700/= from the prevailing Rs.1,000/=.”

    Joker Ranil doesn’t care about the estate workers. The industry itself needs to be downsized and automated, using seasonal workers and/or (in the future) robots to pick the tea. The low wage indicates the industry is either not competitive or else the workers are being exploited. Looking at the data, the second scenario is true, since this industry generates an annual $1.5-1.6B USD on average, or 1%-2% of total GDP, with a participation rate of approximately 400K workers. One can do a DCF analysis to find the optimal wage for the workers.

  • 0

    If they lived In India without coming here, they must be eating passengers left over throne away from windows.) I saw some people doing that when travelling to waranasy(baranasa nuwara) in utter Pradesh to see birthplace of our lord Budda. Here they get every facility. They were very lucky to be here. Ex- president JR”s blunder giving all of them citizenships right benefited them immensely. In near future they might join with LTTE & ask for separate unit for upcountry as well.

    • 0

      “They were very lucky to be here. “
      For that thought alone, you deserve to enjoy an annual one-week holiday for life in one of those luxury line rooms where the plantation workers are housed– with your whole family of course.

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