Dignity of Plantation Workers
Sri Lanka’s plantation sector is going through some daunting challenges these days, more negative than positive.
Tea production fell in August to a 16-year low, while the continuing non-use of weed killer glyphosate is costing the tea industry dearly. The ban has been lifted partially for agricultural crops but the weedicide is yet to be restored to the plantations.
Rubber is facing its own challenges with raw rubber exports on the decline while the debate over palm oil versus rubber continues. Coconut is having its own share of problems.
Adding to the debate is the impact of climate change on agriculture production and thereby poverty, as many stories on such impacts reported this week and the past few weeks, reveal. Climate change, unfortunately, is a slow killer and Governments are slow to react as it still hasn’t become a priority. In one report, it has been stated that the Meteorological Department’s annual budget is a measly Rs. 200 million. How do you expect one of the most important departments in the country which should provide information on weather patterns and early warning signals to operate with such a low budget?
For the record, production has been out of sorts this year. It was better last year with tea production rising by 5 per cent over 2016 (export earnings rose by 20.5 per cent), rubber was up 5 per cent (export earnings rose by 19 per cent), while coconut production fell by 18.7 per cent (export earnings fell by 5 per cent).
While contemplating on these issues – Kussi Amma Sera is yet to return from her long sojourn to the village and thus her occasional outburst on her understanding of the “ecoo-no-mi” was not at my disposal — the phone rings with Pedris Appo – short for Appuhamy, a retired agriculture expert who does farming, on the line.
“I say, I was reading the newspapers the other day and found some very interesting developments in the plantations,” he says.
“Like what?” I ask.
“Well … there were two pieces of legislation approved by Parliament which provides far more legitimacy and development for plantation workers and their families. The rights of plantations workers is still a bone of contention and after the demise of the legendary plantation leader Saumyamoorthy Thondaman in 1999, there have been fewer efforts to uplift this class of people,” he said.
“What are these new developments,” I ask again.
“Apparently a bill has been passed to create an authority to set up villages in plantation areas while amendments have been passed to permit Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) members to utilise PS funds (not permitted before) for social development in the plantations,” he says.
“This is very interesting,” I respond and end the conversation saying I need to find out more about these developments from other sources.
I then call Kandy-based Institute of Social Development, Executive Director P. Mutulingam who has been in the forefront of social development in the plantations. It so happened, that Mutulingam is largely instrumental for decades, along with the late Thondaman, in pushing for these changes.
“This is a turning point, my dear … turning point (for the plantations),” he says, excitedly.
He goes on to explain how these two new pieces of legislation would help the 900,000 workers and their families living in plantations.
“We have been fighting for this for decades, first with the late S. Thondaman. When the bills came to Parliament recently, everyone supported them (a rare occasion) with opposition legislator Vasudeva Nanayakkara saying setting up an authority is not enough, funds should also be allocated,” he said.
The amendment to funds allocation in Pradeshiya Sabhas refers to a situation earlier where allocations for social development cannot come from the PS. It is either through the line ministry or a parliamentarian using his own allocation. If you are an independent group (not attached to any mainstream political party) in a PS, that makes it even worse since there is no MP to support this group.
The issue came to the fore in 1994 with demands to amend the PS legislation to permit local councils to utilise funds for social development in plantations, without any success. In 2005, when an independent group won a PS in plantation areas, there were similar attempts, and again in 2011 without success.
Mutulingam and others, including politicians from plantations, continued their lobbying and have finally succeeded.
Asked about the role of the Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT) established in 1992 for social development in the estates, the plantations’ social development pioneer said that the PHDT is engaged in work only on estates managed by Regional Plantation Companies. State-managed estates and private estates don’t come under development undertaken by this tripartite organisation.
State funds for social development covering all estates are also limited.
The new Authority will help not only work on social development but bring workers (including those on Regional Plantation Companies) into the mainstream instead of them being completely under the control of the estates. Owing to an acute shortage of labour, plantation companies prefer workers and their families to stay on the estates in the hope that they work for the plantations rather than seek work elsewhere. Even though the latter happens (some workers doing other jobs outside the plantations), with at least one member of the family working on the estate, it is still beneficial to the companies. The plantations have changed dramatically from the days of colonial rule, with better access to education for children of plantation workers and with that access to better jobs -– as doctors, accountants, chefs and other professional categories.
While conditions on the estates have improved tremendously since independence from British colonial rule, there is still no dignity for the plantation workers and their children.
Despite a range of benefits from estates, partly through Government hand-outs, workers are still referred to as a controlled force of workers unlike any other worker in Sri Lanka who has more rights and responsibilities. Until a few decades back, estate managements expected the children of workers to do what their parents did on reaching adulthood; join the estate labour force. There was no room for children to do any other job, like any other teenager, other than work on the plantations. That has dramatically changed with different avenues of employment available. Many men and women are also working in other jobs, while women are also migrating to West Asia for work as domestics.
Under the new Authority, new villages will be set up and though still on estates, give workers more freedom to integrate into mainstream development. These villages and their development will be on par with normal village environments and development with access to the usual services provided by the state and the rights that go with it. The enabling legislation permitting PS members to utilise funds from their local council coffers will help to improve conditions on estates, particularly those that don’t come under Regional Plantation Companies.
These new developments also provide workers and their families more responsibilities in taking their own decisions rather than being in the clutches of trade unions and political parties. While political parties and trade unions were seen as working for the rights of plantations workers, some of them (politicians and officials) were also feathering their own nests in the process.
These developments are a huge plus for this marginalised force of plantation workers and would enable them, apart from their children seeking more dignified jobs, to enter Sri Lanka’s mainstream development and enjoy the rights provided to any individual. It would also give them a more dignified presence in Sri Lanka.
Source - www.sundaytimes.lk/180930/business-times/dignity-of-plantation-workers-313832.html