By Skandha Gunasekara
Regional plantation companies (RPCs) were reducing the pay of workers by reducing the number of working days, in an effort to reduce the cost following the gazetting of Rs. 1,000 as the minimum daily wage, trade unions (TUs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) told The Sunday Morning.
The move was pushing an already disadvantaged community to the brink, TUs said. However, the Planters’ Association of Ceylon (PA) rejected these allegations.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Labour published the gazette notification establishing Rs. 1,000 as the minimum daily wage of estate workers. It came into effect on 5 March 2021.
Accordingly, Rs. 900 would be the daily wage for time worked and Rs. 100 would be the budgetary allowance.
However, TUs as well as NGOs alleged that RPCs were undercutting the move by the Government to ensure a minimum monthly wage of Rs. 20,000-25,000 by reducing the number of workdays provided per month.
Estate workers further down the ditch
Institute of Social Development Executive Director R. Muthulingam told The Sunday Morning that life had become almost unbearable for many estate sector workers due to the rise in the cost of living and no real increment in daily wages.
“The agreed upon Rs. 1,000 per day (wage) had become a scam by the estates, as they had resorted to reducing the total number of days in order to comply with the Government’s instructions, while also reducing their expenses. So now, the workers are given Rs. 1,000 per day, but their workdays were reduced to around 13-15, sometimes even 12 days, per month, and those workers were earning only Rs. 12,000 a month. Meanwhile, the prices of flour, rice, and other essentials have gone up. So, how can they survive?” he pointed out.
He said that it was critical that these workers were paid properly, as the cost of living was too high, particularly with the increase in gas prices.
“Earlier, estate workers used to use firewood, which they used to bring from the nearest forest. But now, the Forest Department and estate officials do not allow them to do so. Additionally, within the last decade, they switched to using gas, as gas companies and estate managers encouraged estate workers to use gas as an alternative to firewood. However, at this juncture, do you think these workers can afford to purchase a gas cylinder, with just Rs. 12,000 a month?” Muthulingam questioned.
National Union of Workers (NUW) General Secretary Mylvaganam Thilakarajah too asserted that companies were hoodwinking the workers and the Government.
Thilakarajah said: “Even though the Government took steps to increase the daily wage of estate workers and even gazetted it, the RPCs are not implementing it in the estates properly. They reduced the number of workdays to get around it. So, the overall cost they incur for a worker now works out to the same amount it was before the gazette was published.
“Moreover, the prices of essential goods have increased, which means the workers’ incomes have reduced while their daily expenditures skyrocketed. I think this is the worst situation they have faced in history. It is quite pathetic.”
He said that the problem lay with the fact that the gazette did not specify a minimum number of workdays, unlike the previous Collective Agreement.
“The Collective Agreement between the RPCs and unions stipulated a minimum of 300 workdays per year. However, the Rs. 1,000 minimum wage gazette made no such stipulation. The Wages Board cannot determine the number of days, only the wage rate. So even though the Rs. 1,000 daily wage was gazetted, the companies were able to decrease the number of workdays per month to 12-13 days,” he said.
He opined that the best solution to the problem was to allow estate workers to become tea smallholders, as practised in low-country tea estates.
“As a solution, the Government should emulate what was done in the 20 years (1972-1992) the plantations in the South were taken under it, where the tea estates were given to the workers, who then became tea smallholders. This is not being practised only in the upcountry, where the estates are with private companies. What is implemented in the South can be implemented in the high-grown tea plantations as well,” he explained.
Thilakarajah said that this way, the workers could earn a proper living while ensuring high productivity, which would benefit the RPCs and their tea production efforts, adding: “The field work will be done by the tea smallholders. The companies can then buy the plucked tea leaves from them and produce the tea in their factories.
“This is the practice in the South among low-grown tea plantations. Seventy-five percent of exports in the South are from tea smallholders. Why can’t they implement this same thing in the Hill Country with the high grown tea?”
RPCs reject claims
Nevertheless, plantation companies vehemently rejected these allegations.
PA Media Spokesman Dr. Roshan Rajadurai told The Sunday Morning that these were nothing but baseless allegations and that the only instance the Rs. 1,000 daily wage would not be given was when workers failed to be adequately productive.
“The Rs. 1,000 daily wage has been established by law by the Wages Board, so how can we not pay that? Of course, workers who pluck only 10 kg of tea leaves won’t get paid the full amount – that is obvious. When inquired, I found out that while normally the workers collect 18-20 kg of tea, some only collect around 10 kg. They work for around three hours a day and leave. These workers won’t get paid Rs. 1,000 when the rest are collecting 18-plus kg of tea,” he said.
He said that a small percentage of workers, mostly men, were responsible for this inadequacy.
“Only a small percentage of the workers achieve these targets – around 5% at the most. We see this issue mostly among men. They pluck for two to three hours and leave. No business would pay their employee a full day’s pay for three hours of work; in the end, this is a business, and now, tea prices are also falling,” he emphasised.
He said that the workers, unions, or any interested party could lodge a complaint if they believe estate workers were treated unfairly.
He added: “If the workers worked for eight hours and achieved the target that the employer set and were still not getting the Rs. 1,000 daily wage, they can lodge a complaint with the Assistant Commissioner of Labour at the Labour Department.
“An MP also tried to tell me that employees were not getting paid, but I pointed out to him too that this was only because they were either not working the required hours or even coming close to achieving the set targets.”
The PA Media Spokesman explained that the only instances where the number of workdays would be reduced was when the crop season was low or due to adverse weather conditions, and added that here too, the workers would be provided with a relief advance payment.
“Normally, during the crop season, we give full employment. When the crop is down, however, there will be one day or so less in the work week.
“The unions and NGOs can make these allegations, but they must show proof. Where are we allowing only 10 or 12 days of work? In our estates, even during the worst weather, they work 20 days and when there are less days, we give advance payments. That has been the normal practice.
“If at all there are instances of only 10 or 12 days of work, it must’ve been because there was no crop. The estate management can’t have workers in the fields when there are no crops. But in this case, the management will give a relief advance. Similarly, another reason could be adverse weather. In very bad weather, the number of workdays per week would drop from six to around four days a week; again, we give a relief advance for the workers to tide them over. This has been the practice for decades.”
He further refuted the allegations of an extremely low number of workdays and stated that the lowest number of workdays a month would be 20.
“In the worst-case scenario, the minimum number of workdays would be 20 per month. Otherwise, the companies give relief. But on a normal month, we give full employment, including Saturdays, Sundays, and even Poya days. But, of course, you have to pluck the amount that is considered the norm, which is 20 kg. When the crop was down, of course, we had paid the full wage for even 16 kg of tea leaves. But this is only when the crop is down,” he said.
He alleged that the unions and NGOs were making such allegations after falling out of favour with the estate workers due to their inaction and lack of help extended during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“During the peak of Covid, none of these unions and NGOs were there for the workers. It was the plantation companies and estate managers who looked after the workers then. These NGOs and unions are making a noise now because they have to save face after their failure to help during the height of the pandemic,” he alleged.
When The Sunday Morning reached out to Minister of Labour Nimal Siripala de Silva on the Government’s action in this regard, the Minister refused to comment, citing ongoing court proceedings pertaining to the issue.
While the unions and RPCs squabble among themselves, the cost of living is reaching unbearable levels, and the poor estate workers appear to have no relief in sight.
Courtesy:The Sunday Morning