In the recent past there have been several articles written opposing the government decision to increase the wages of tea estate workers. On the 22nd November 2020, the Island newspaper published an article titled “Tea industry experts willing to learn the magic formula …” written by a spokesman for the Planters’ Association. Its theme was that under the present conditions it is not possible to increase wages.
There is a 1000 acre tea plantation called Nerada in far north Queensland in Australia (neradatea.com.au). It produces 6.6 million kg of leaf and 1.6 million kg of made tea annually. Total labour force is less than 50 and the factory is manned by 4 people in a shift. The minimum hourly wage in Australia is about AUD 20 or around SLR 2,500 which works out to SLR 20,000 for a 8 hour day. Nerada pays above minimum wages so that they can retain talent. Leaf plucking is done by one machine for the whole plantation – therefore there is only one tea plucker at any time and plucking is a 24 hour operation. The plantation is family owned and they have developed all the technology themselves – no Tea Research Institutes or Tea Boards.
If Nerada can pay SLR 20,000 per person per day why can’t Sri Lanka pay SLR 1000 per day? The answer is simple – at Nerada 50 people produce 1.6 million kg of made tea annually which works out to 32,000 kg per person annually. This is worth about AUD 150000. Pay the worker AUD 50,000 per year and the company has AUD 100,000 per person per year for other things. This has been achieved through innovation which has resulted in mechanisation and automation of processes. SL has not innovated, continuing to do things the way they have been done for ages. This could be the net result of many decisions taken in the past such as nationalisation of the plantations, regional plantation companies (RPC) not owning the plantations, therefore milking them rather than developing them and general backwardness of the country in developing and employing modern technology.
RPCs have managed the plantations for more than 25 years and if they are interested in developing the plantations, they had ample time. However, they have chosen to remain in the dark ages without any innovative thinking and actions and now are arguing against wage increases. SLR 1000 is around USD 6 per day which is not much higher than the extreme poverty level defined by the UN. The actions of the government, the plantation companies and the planters have made sure the workers remained in poverty during the past and now want to ensure that continues into the future.
In the 1980s Singapore had the problem of being turned into a large garment manufacturing centre which they did not want. The government increased the wages of garment factory workers – the message was innovate and produce more per worker or close down. History shows they all closed down and engaged in other pursuits. The Sri Lankan government should be congratulated for taking this bold step of increasing wages – the message is clear, innovate or we will change the agreements. How can you let the RPCs hold a large proportion of the population as well as the economy of the country hostage.
What is stopping us from using a company such as Nerada as the benchmark and trying to achieve what they have achieved. Let me list a few steps.
1. Green leaf – Nerada produces 6600 kg per acre per year. Considering it is one plantation, as a country can we aim for at least half of that. I am sure everyone knows what to do – the list is long. Definition of innovation – 5% is knowing what to do and 95% is doing it.
2. Plucking – This possibly is the highest cost item in the production of tea in Sri Lanka. Two excuses are given for not mechanising plucking – the terrain does not allow for mechanised plucking and mechanised plucking reduces the yield. New replanting areas should have the terrain modified to enable mechanised plucking. The myth of reduced yield does not stand against evidence from Nerada
3. Factory – There are more than 700 tea factories in Sri Lanka employing large numbers of people. Factories in some areas cannot find enough people to man them. Most of these people are used for transporting material from one process or machine to another and in some cases to watch and operate machines. At Nerada all these operations are automated and only 4 people are required in a shift. Why not scrap the existing factories and build new ones – the payback will be very quick. One of the big problems in the past was trying to modify existing factories which limits possibilities. Do not think outside the box. Think there is no box.
4. Then there are other minor things that go beyond what Nerada has done – using solar energy for the driers and using dehumidified air for withering. Nerada has no need for producing dehumidified air as the humidity in that area is very low.
5. The workers cannot do anything about these. The government, RPCs and management have to take the initiative to improve our plantations. There are no bad soldiers – only bad officers
I believe I have made a case for increasing wages of plantation workers and hope the RPCs will look at this in a positive manner.