The Government has decided to gazette the minimum wage of Rs 1,000 for estate workers, after failing to reach consensus with plantation companies.
The move came following the Cabinet approval granted this week to proceed with the Wages Board process after all three trade unions collectively declared that they would not make any compromise with regard to their demand for a basic wage of Rs 1,000 a day.
The plantation trade unions have decided to take up the basic wage dispute at a special Wages Board meeting after failing to reach consensus with Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs).
The talks ended up in a deadlock despite several rounds of discussions.
The special Wages Board meeting is scheduled for February 6.
Labour Commissioner General B.K. Prabath Chandrakeerthi told the Sunday Times that during the special Wages Board meeting, only matters related to basic wage, working hours, overtime claims and leave would be discussed and would not discuss any social benefits of the workers as mandated in the collective agreement.
“This is not the first time the Wages Board is intervening in the plantation workers’ wages. It had done so in 2004 and 2014. The focus of the Wages Board meeting would be resolving the basic wage dispute,” he said.
This week, Labour Minister Nimal Sripala de Silva told Cabinet that the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC) which represents the RPCs had proposed to increase the daily wage up to Rs 920.
The Cabinet approved the Memorandum by the Minister “to take necessary steps to increase the employee wage to Rs 1,000 by taking up the matter with the Wages Board to ensure that the budget proposal could be implemented.”
However, a CEA spokesperson disputed the Cabinet memorandum saying that during the last round of talks, they agreed to Rs 725 as basic wage — a Rs 25 increase from the previous wage.
With the 2019 collective agreement expiring last week, the Labour Ministry published a gazette this week issuing notice to the signatory parties.
In the 2020 Budget, the Government pledged once again to provide Rs 1,000 a day as basic wage for the plantation workers in keeping up with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential election promise and Cabinet decisions followed thereafter.
The RPCs came up with a final proposal last week suggesting workers could earn more than Rs. 1,000 while maintaining Rs 700 as basic wage.
The breakdown is as follows: Basic Wage – Rs. 700, EPF/ETF – Rs. 105, Attendance Incentive – Rs. 150 and Productivity Incentive – Rs. 150. Under the new proposal, workers will receive a substantial Rs. 6,250 increase to their monthly earnings.
Describing the referral of the dispute to the Wages Board as a ‘very very regressive step’ by the trade unions, EFC spokesperson Roshan Rajadurai told the Sunday Times the Government should not have been involved in negotiations in the first place.
“The Government did not consult us before announcing its approval for the payment of a basic wage of Rs 1,000 a day for plantation workers. We proposed a mechanism to the unions where workers can earn over thousand rupees but they vehemently rejected it,” Mr. Rajadurai said.
Therefore, the companies would be focusing on the basic wage alone during next week’s meeting and could not be expected to provide other benefits covered under the collective agreement, he said.
Ahead of next week’s Wages Board meeting, the three plantation trade unions which are signatories to the agreements — the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union (LJEWU) and the Joint Plantation Trade Union Centre (JPTUC)– met on Friday to reiterate that they would not back down from the Rs 1000 demand.
JPTUC General Secretary S. Ramanathan said they welcomed the move to refer the issue to the Wages Board since they could not agree to anything less because of the increasing cost of living.
“Roughly on a given day, a plantation worker plucks 12kg of tea leaves in which at least five kilograms of black tea can be processed and sold at more than Rs 5,000. Why can’t they be given Rs 1000?” asked Mr Ramanathan stressing the collective stand of the trade unions.
According to Forbes & Walker tea brokers, Sri Lanka’s tea output, although it is likely to recover this year, is unlikely to achieve the heights registered from 2010 to 2015.
Despite the record low production, the tea broker company highlighted that the average prices at the Colombo Tea Auction reached their highest ever value in rupee terms of Rs. 628.21 a kilo last year, topping the previous all-time high of Rs .618.14 achieved in 2017.