By Lalith Obeyesekere –
I refer to the article titled “What Is At Stake For Oppressed Plantation Communities In Sri Lanka Beyond The Pandemic?” By Upul Wickramasinghe, which appeared in the Colombo Telegraph of 8th May and wish to correct the misconceptions conveyed from the article, plus place on record certain facts which the author should have strived to verify, before rushing his story in.
From the outset Wickramasinghe attempts to misconstrue the situation in the plantation sector, which in a nutshell I am compelled to shed light on; While there remains substantial variation across Regional Plantation Companies’(RPC’s) owned estates plus the estates owned by the government and more is required in order to uplift the living standards of all estate sector communities, regardless of whether RPC or government managed, the introduction of private sector management since 1995 has saved the State from the burden of approx. Rs. 400 million per month, amounting to almost Rs. 12 billion per annum when adjusted for inflation to the present day.
It was only subsequent to privatization that worker welfare activities have been improved in a systematic manner. While the majority of educational, health and nutritional interventions have been carried out by the State and funded by RPC’s and international donor agencies, the RPCs have played a key role in supporting and facilitating such initiatives.
The author alleges ‘dire social conditions, oppression and exploitation for 200 years’. I wonder if he is aware of post privatization initiatives or has attempted visits to RPC estates, where he would have seen first-hand their living conditions which have improved vastly. Fifty thousand (50,000), two (2) bedroom houses with en-suite toilets have been built to replace the line rooms in an on-going effort for the 180,000 families that still live on RPC estates – all of whom may not be working in the fields. From schools to hospitals, crèches to retirement homes, ongoing welfare activity to 1/10th of the Country’s population is a priority of the RPC’s who constitute the Plantations Human Development Trust (PHDT) along with Trade Unions and Government. Today an estate worker has the ability to earn in excess of Rs 25,000 per month, in addition to all other infrastructure facilities provided by RPCs.
Next, he refers to the pandemic situation, lack of precautionary methods implemented on estates and for plantation workers in particular, citing an article which appeared in The Guardian UK. The RPC’s, through the Planters’ Association of Ceylon has already lodged a response, the matter of which is being looked into by The Guardian UK.
Gunaratnam’s article, totally lacking in research, developed while probably sitting in a university library, somewhere in the UK, focuses on the state-owned Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation (SLSPC), nevertheless makes broad statements amounting to serious factual misrepresentations to conditions on all tea estates – including those privately managed by the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) which make up membership of the PA.
While work on the estates was halted on 13th March, in compliance with a government directive to work from home, RPCs were able to resume work after a 4-days interruption. This was due to the remarkable support extended by health officials and the dedication of planters to institute stringent health and safety protocols, while ensuring that all workers and the wider estate community had their essential needs met.
At present there have been no cases of COVID-19 detected among workers and resident communities in the tea-growing regions of Hatton and Nuwara Eliya districts. Currently, the RPC tea sector maintains a workforce of approximately 135,000 and is responsible for the welfare of a wider estate community of an approximate population of 1 million.
The challenges around COVID-19 adding to the already pressing difficulties of tea producers who had been facing an unprecedented drought for the past 3 months, estimated to have caused as much as a 40% reduction in production, together with the government’s decision of the tea industry as an essential service, were the reasons to gear up the estate workers – harvesters and factory staff with all possible precautionary processes and have them resume work.
A Plantation Task Force to combat the spread of Covid-19 was quickly convened where all stakeholders rallied around Government authorities to support health officials and safeguard estate communities in every way possible. This is an effort which we are proud of, because we know just how much was accomplished in such a short span of time.
Within a span of 4 days a series of measures intended first and foremost to safeguard the health of the community was rolled out. These included the commencement of systematic hand sanitation, with regular reminders being provided to maintain strict hygiene and avoid touching of the face with unwashed hands, including the posting of notices with reminders on health and hygiene practices in all languages.
Meanwhile, all staff and worker dwellings, as well as factory premises were disinfected and will continuously be disinfected on a regular basis either utilising Regional Plantation Companies (RPC) resources or working in collaboration with PHDT representatives and other Government authorities.
All workers were issued protective masks, purchased in stockpiles, or from repurposed materials where there was an immediate shortage of masks. Similarly, strict social distancing has been enforced at all times including during operations in the field.
While in some isolated instances workers and estate community members have been compelled to resort to improvised masks, in every possible instance, RPCs have issued protective masks to employees and provided detailed instructions on their proper use. Some RPCs have even commenced manufacturing masks in order to safeguard workers.
Employees were provided with food parcels as well as salary advances for food and other essentials, as special measures taken in partnership with Government authorities and Sathosa. Through such partnerships, rations were delivered directly to the estates, in order to avoid situations where community members would have otherwise been forced to stand in long queues.
Special funds were raised by the Ministry of Community Empowerment and Estate Infrastructure Development specifically to supply soap and sanitizers directly to estate sector communities free of charge. To totally ignore these facts and fabricate claims without a shred of proof to corroborate any of what has been alleged is a shameful mockery of our continuing collective efforts, particularly those of health and law enforcement officials who are literally risking their lives each day in order to safeguard these communities.
On the subject of multi-purpose learning centres on estates to upgrade skills and knowledge of the community, specifically the children, we have several such learning centres across all our estates, ranging from the 1500 plus Child Development Centres (CDC’s) with trained Child Development Officers (CDO’s) to hundreds of vocational and skills development centres, many of them managed very successfully by the PHDT as well as Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s). The estate management encourages such centres and provides the required accommodation for such centres as well as living quarters for teachers. So sweeping statements that learning centres are viewed with hostility is incorrect. There have been sporadic instances, specifically on an estate in Haputale, where a sewing class was closed for many months while the ‘teacher’ stationed there, from an external resource, wanted to stay on. With police intervention, the so called centre, on inspection was found to be empty, depleted of all furniture and material and suspected of a breach in security. The Plantation management is responsible for residents and operations within their estates and irregularities are duly informed to law enforcement authorities, who then decide on the outcome. We will certainly not tolerate any nefarious activity or irregularities that will pose a threat to the otherwise wellbeing of the estate community.
And finally on the health outcome where the writer has cited statistics from a World Bank survey, let me bring him as well as all those that helped him develop the article, up to-date on the current situation; The Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT) is a 26 year old, tripartite organisation, comprising the Government of Sri Lanka, Trade Unions and the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, who’s primary object is the social and welfare development on estates. PHDT conducts annual health surveys in accordance with the Ministry of Health. The 2018 health survey revealed that low birth weight on estates is actually 14.4% as compared to the national average of 15.7%. Admittedly, health indicators on estates have come a long way since privatisation and a concerted drive by PHDT and RPC’s has facilitated the improvements. So the writer’s claim of low birth weight being 2.4% higher in the plantation sector as compared to the rest of the Country is incorrect.
Given the several inaccuracies in the article and the perception that is conveyed about the welfare and social developments on estates, perhaps through ignorance, we urge Mr Wickramasinghe and others to pursue the facts through independent organisations such as the PHDT and UN agencies such as the ILO as well as ourselves at the PA. We will be delighted to direct them to and show the many developments that have taken place in housing, health, education and even entrepreneur mind set, while we strive to move to an elevated form of contractual work, rather than wages.
So much is evolving on RPC estates and articles such as these from stunted perspectives are demoralising not only for the industry but the communities who finally are the beneficiaries.
*Lalith Obeyesekere, Secretary General of the Planters’ Association (PA), which represents the interests of the 21 Regional Plantation Companies (RPC’s), and Former Chairman of the PA