Landless plantation workers rally in capital for higher minimum wage despite companies' alleged losses
A Catholic nun holds a poster during a rally in Colombo on Jan. 23 urging the government to double the daily wage for tea workers to 1,000 rupees. (Photo: Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
Pastor Marimuthu Sakthivel was hard to ignore on the streets on Colombo as he joined other protesters calling for a wage increase for tea workers while also beating a drum.
He said the nation's tea pickers have been underpaid for generations and remain stuck at the bottom of the social ladder with chronically low wages and few opportunities to own land.
The Anglican priest, co-leader of a campaign demanding a higher daily wage for tea estate employees, joined other priests, a local bishop, social activists and women tea workers in the capital making their voices heard on Jan. 23.
Pastor Sakthivel hoisted a black flag and shouted slogans in opposition to corporate trade unions' attempts to keep the minimum daily wage at 500 rupees.
The campaigners are targeting 1,000 rupees (US$5.40), which they say is more than reasonable.
This collective of unions and activists has been rallying for the same cause time and again, with little headway made. They are known as the "Thousand Movement" in reference to the salary they want to see mandated.
The tea workers, whose collective agreement with plantation companies is renewed every two years, expired in October 2018. They have been protesting since then as no new compact was signed that would have increased their wage. The laborers rejected a proposed raise of 20 percent, or 100 rupees, offered by the Employers' Federation of Ceylon, arguing this was not a fair deal.
They went on a seven-day strike in December, led by the trade unions, pressing their demand for more money. Refusing to back down or be ignored, they returned to the capital to hold another demonstration on Jan. 28.
The activists also urged the trade unions not to "betray" them by signing the collective agreement agreeing to the small increase.
Critics of that proposed deal claim the tea companies are continuing to earn significant profits despite their complaints that revenues are falling.
Sri Lanka's tea exports and auctions have been badly affected by the estate workers' strike and the constitutional crisis that struck the country last October. The tea companies say they lost 240 million rupees a day during the strike or 1.75 billion rupees ($24.5 million) overall — losses they used to justify rejecting the demands to boost the minimum wage to 1,000 rupees a day.
The crisis was sparked by President Maithripala Sirisena naming ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister on Oct. 26, which resulted in two politicians claiming to legitimately hold the post. Sirisena's critics decried the move as illegal.
Occupational hazards outweigh pay
Sri Lanka is the world's second-largest exporter of tea after China. The tea industry is one of the country's main foreign exchange earners. But the plantation workers still rank among the poorest landless communities in the nation.
"Women tea workers have to pluck leaves under the hot sun and also in the rain. Not only that, they are [sometimes] attacked by leopards and other wild animals, and their lives are miserable," said Father Sakthivel.
"The protesting tea workers have in the past chased some governments out of power," he said, urging the current set of political leaders to take heed.
"The workers keep on suffering from generation to generation," he added.
Their salaries come up for review every two years by the factory owners, with the last increase to the minimum wage of 50 rupees implemented in 2016.
The workers are almost all Tamils, descended from those brought in as cheap labor around the 1820s under British colonial rule. Women make up more than half of the total number. They usually live on the estates in rows of 400-square-foot rooms.
Sudantha Madava from the Aluth Parapura (New Generation) organization said every citizen should be prepared to stand up for the rights of the most vulnerable members of society by taking action.
"We all have a part to play in securing their livelihoods and empowering tea workers to fight for their rights," said Madava.
More than a million people live and work on the tea estates. New research conducted by the state-run University of Peradeniya found that a worker needs 27,707 rupees a month on average to meet their basic needs. But their current average salary is about 8,000 rupees or less than a third of that.
"Ceylon Tea has grown in global popularity over the years. For the last two centuries, Sri Lanka's tea workers have bolstered the nation's economy, and yet their situation is worsening," said tea worker and activist Jessy Fonseka.
"The low wages are driving more people away from these jobs. Meanwhile, many of the tea workers' children suffer from malnutrition."
Father Sakthivel vowed that he and the other activists would not back down "We will continue to fight until the wage is increased to 1,000 rupees for a full day's work," he said.