Colombo, February 9: The salaries of Sri Lanka’s tea plantation workers are revised once in two years. The two-year Collective Agreement (CA) between Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) and the trade unions was to be renewed on October 15, 2018. The new agreement which was signed about two weeks ago was not published, as usual. Trade unions are criticizing the RPCs for depriving tea workers of the attendance bonus and some other incentives when administering a so-called increase in the basic salary. The CA was gazetted after months of fitful negotiations.
The “1000 Movement” is a collective of unions and grassroots activists who are keen on increasing the daily basic salary of an estate worker to Rs. 1,000. Duminda Nagamuwa of the 1000 Movement said that there is no such increment provided in the newly-signed agreement.
The RPCs refused to accede to the tea workers’ Rs.1000 wage increase demand and signed the Collective Agreement recently which saw the basic wage being increased from Rs.500 to Rs. 700.
According to the 2016 CA the basic salary of a plantation worker was increased to Rs. 500. Rs 60 a day was given as an attendance allowance, Rs 30 as a price share supplement and Rs 140 as a productivity allowance. So, altogether the daily wage of a worker came to about Rs 730.
As per the new agreement, a worker gets a daily wage of Rs. 750 with a fixed share supplement of Rs. 50; which was Rs. 30 earlier. The other two key allowances including attendance allowance of Rs. 60 and Productivity Incentive of Rs. 140 were terminated.
“Now they have made the basic salary Rs. 700, removing the attendance and productivity allowances. They have increased the price share supplement to Rs. 50 from Rs. 30, making the new overall daily wage Rs. 750. So, essentially the daily net salary hike has been just Rs. 20. This is just an eye wash,” Nagamuwa complained.
The meeting initially scheduled to be held on February 5 (Tuesday) with Tamil Progressive Front (TPF), RPCs, Plantations Ministry and Labor Ministry to come to a settlement regarding the salary increase of tea estate workers was postponed, State Minister and TPF representative V.Radhakrishnan said.
Officials of the RPCs had not confirmed their participation at the meeting. TPF politicians including ministers Mano Ganesan, V.Radhakrishnan and P.Thigambaram insist on crediting the productivity allowance of Rs.140 to the basic salary.
As a result of their objection, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe agreed to delay the issuing of the gazette notification pertaining to increasing the daily wage of estate workers up to Rs.700. This was to allow negotiations to continue.
“If the plantation companies don’t agree to our demand, we need the government to intervene and contribute to the salaries of the workers. That is when we will decide whether to stay in the unity government or quit. The government also has a responsibility,” State Minister Radhakrishnan said.
There are around five main trade unions operating in the estates including Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union (LJEWU) and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC). These unions are closely aligned with political parties. At a time when the expenditure for food, health, education, transport and clothes is going up, every tea estate worker is supposed to pay Rs.150 per month as contribution to the trade union the individual is a member of.
Even the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, one of the main trade unions in the country, charges only Rs.20 per month from every member.
“How unfair it is to snatch such an amount of money from salaries of tea workers and not do anything for their betterment?” Nagamuwa of the “1000 Movement” asked.
He said it is ridiculous that the so-called trade unions first give consent to the agreement which was signed in their presence and later voice objections to the same agreement.
Ministers Thigambaram and Mano Ganesan opposed this newly signed agreement not out of a genuine concern for tea workers but to gain political mileage, Nagamuwa alleged.
“With our new productivity-based wage model, workers can earn as much as Rs.80.000 per month if they work harder,” said Employers’ Federation of Ceylon Plantations Group Chairman Roshan Rajadurai.
“There are many families that have more than one source of income and enjoy a monthly income that exceeds the minimum wage of a tea estate worker. They earn a considerable amount of money to support their daily expenditure through other income sources. For example, men in the estate sector work as construction workers, three wheeler drivers and laborers in road construction.”
“The Government does not provide everything for these workers. We alone are responsible for the wages of the workers .Therefore the Government cannot tell us what to pay and how to pay,” Rajadurai said.
“If they really want to intervene, they can easily be a part of it and pay the workers. I don’t think the Government is in a position to do so because they are not even able to pay the EPF of the workers,” he added.
Is Sri Lankan Tea Declining Internationally?
Tea is the second most popular beverage in the world. However, planters claim that the Sri Lankan tea industry is experiencing hard times in the international market.
According to Rajadurai, plantation companies are going down.
“We cannot afford to fulfill the workers’ demand for a daily wage of Rs.1000 at this moment. We can afford to pay the salaries from what we earn. Our companies are running down in the market. The competition in the international tea market is high. Compared with tea workers in other countries, we have not even achieved 10% of their productivity. These happenings have made an already bad situation worse. International prices are also falling,” he said.
But Colombo Tea Auction prices are not falling, but rising.
The Daily Mirror also spoke to the Sri Lanka Tea Board Chairman Lucille Wijewardena ,who refuted Rajadurai’s statement that tea prices are falling. Despite competition in the international market, Sri Lankan tea is doing well, he assured.