By K. Balendra –
It is true that the plantation labour was brought to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) by the British Rulers during the early 19th Century. Both countries were under the British Rule. At that time, none of the Ceylon politicians made any tangible effort to protest against the influx of the Indian labour. The Ceylonese labour was not willing to fall a prey to the designs of the British. They were aware of the immense hardship one has to undergo in preparing the land to plant Tea, Rubber and Coconut.
This situation was successfully exploited by the British government by bringing in cheap Indian Labour. Nevertheless, this exploitation benefited not only Ceylon but Sri Lanka too. In that, Sri Lanka would not have been able to earn the much needed foreign exchange after the independence, if not for the plantation industry and the Indian labour. Srilanka would have suffered immensely without adequate foreign exchange earnings.
Indian, labour was exploited by the British prior to independence, but Sri Lankan Government, together with the Plantation trade Unions exploited them after the independence. They were like babes in the wood- Nowhere to go – No one to lead-No one to follow.
Without dwelling into the past too much, I would confine myself to a few years prior to the independence and thereafter.
Mr. A.E.Goonesinghe, who was considered a prominent labour leader with leftist leanings, commenced a tirade against the Indian labour in 1942. The so called Indian labourers were deprived of the government lands occupied by them and prevented from farming by law. This law affected the Indian labourers in general and particularly the labourers living in Nuwara-eliya and Kandapola, where vegetables were cultivated in plenty. Further in 1942, the lands occupied by the labourers of Indian origin were confiscated by the Government and were left at lurch. These lands so confiscated were given to the Sinhala Villagers. MR. DS Senanayke, in his capacity as the Minister of Lands in the State Council in 1946, delightfully supported the move made by A.E. Goonesinghe.
The Ceylonese/Sri Lankan government was not bothered about the Indian Businessmen who were exploiting and remitting money to India in a big way. They were concerned only about the physical number of workers living here, despite the fact, they seldom remitted money to India.
In 1949, Mr.DS .Senanayake-the Prime Minister of Ceylon in a very communal manner stated that although the labourers of Indian origin has contributed for the development, they came over to Ceylon to make a living and did not contribute for the welfare of the people. Thus he exhibited his true character with regard to the labourers of Indian origin. The so called father of the nation did not want to be even a ‘step father’ to the plantation labour.
In 1948 the plantation labour supported the leftist movements, which caused concern for the UNP. Further, the fact that the plantation labourers were mostly Tamils, and supported the leftist parties caused trepidation in the minds of the UNP government with a fragile majority. Mr. D.S. Senanayake,as the Prime Mminister shrewdly decided to disenfranchise them . Accordingly as Prime Minister, he brought in a law to deprive plantation labour of their voting rights. This meant Less Tamils and Less Leftists in the Parliament. Killing two birds with one stone?
Unfortunately, even some of the Tamil M.P’s voted with the government, which resulted in the split in the Tamil Congress. An interesting question arises in one’s mind as to whether the Prime Minster DS. Senanayake would have brought in this law, if the plantation labour, though of Indian origin, were Sinhalese? Thus started the rot!
From 1948 on words, the plantation labour was taken for a ride both by the successive governments and the Trade unions who represented them. Of course, the trade unions mingled with the plantation labour and exploited them for their own benefit. In that process, Trade unions split and they were only keen in swelling the number of members in their respective unions rather than helping their members to lead a decent living. The competition between the unions centred round contesting general elections and winning seats, promising the Sun and the Moon and the earth (Land). The labourers too were victims of their guardian angels- the trade unions. In that process they were frustrated and lost their fighting spirits.
There appears to be a change in their attitude to words their trade unions now. It is evident that they no longer wish to depend on their unions. Instead they wish to stand on their own feet and fight for their salary increase, which have been denied to them from April 2015, despite the fact they were partly responsible for bringing in the’ yhapalanaya’ government. But one wonders whether they could win their rights without a solid organization.
Every time a salary revision is asked for by the plantation labour it is said that the Tea Industry is running at a loss and therefore the suggested wage increase cannot be considered. The Trade Unions too subtly supported this position to enable them to be in the limelight with the poor workers making empty promises to obtain the increases asked for. If the salary adjustments were made immediately after the expiry of the previous agreement, the talk of profit and loss would not have arisen.
If the Trade unions were prudent and really concerned about the workers they could have commenced the negotiations at least 3 months prior to the expiry of the existing agreement or included a clause in the agreement to pay an increased cost of living allowance based on the cost of living index, until a new agreement is reached.
The Ceylon Mercantile Union’s boss Comrade Bala Tampoe in his agreement with the Employers’ Federation incorporated a similar clause many years ago which benefitted largely the Mercantile Employees.
It is indeed a pity, that that the employers are concerned about the losses only when a wage increase is asked for. But not a murmur is made when there is an increase in the fuel price, vat, electricity tariffs etc,etc.
Plantation companies do not seem to publish their Audited Financial Reports in the press to ascertain the truth of their statement of losses. Where does the Right to Information Law stands?
Another Important factor is to include the arrears of increased wages if and when it comes through, from the date of the cessation of the existing agreement.
I remember, a friend of Senior Thondaman telling me, that the Late Mr Thondaman confessed to him with tears in his eyes, from his sick bed, that he had failed to do whatever he could have done to the plantation workers due to his political misadventures. How true?
Thus, it is an accepted fact that Trade Unions and politics can’t go together in the long run. You may derive only a short term benefit. The trade union veteran Late Comrade Bala Tampoe learnt this early in life and avoided politics after a couple of misadventures by contesting elections.
It must be accepted that a few youngsters from the plantation districts are employed in various capacity in the Mercantile Sector, as Teachers, Nurses, Jewelers, and Judiciary etc. Some have even turned out to be successful business men. However, all this success stories are due to their own efforts and not due to Trade Unions’ assistance. Of course, quite a few Trade Union leaders have become ‘Rich and Famous’ due to support given by the plantation workers.