We write with reference to the article titled: “Lack of proper nutrition, housing and education plague Sri Lanka’s tea plantation community” by Kathy Melvin, Director of Mission Communications at the Presbyterian Mission Agency, Presbyterian Church, USA which appeared in the Daily Financial Times on 28 February 2018.
The Planters’ Association of Ceylon notes with disappointment the drastic factual inaccuracies published in the above cited article, the most serious of which relate to false statements on worker wages, the prevalence of malnutrition and standards of education and literacy rates among communities in the plantation sector – all of which have been presented by the author with totally inaccurate figures, particularly as they relate to the Regional Plantation Companies.
False claims on wages and poverty in the plantation sector
At the outset, we wish to restate the clear distinctions in categories present in our industry which the author has made no attempt to clarify when making her comments, instead resorting to broad, generalized statements about the industry that only serve to further amplify the sever factual inaccuracies contained in her statement.
The Sri Lankan plantation sector is split into privately owned plantations and estates managed by the Regional Plantation Companies – which collectively account for just under 30% of all tea production in Sri Lanka, with the remaining 70% being sourced from the substantially larger numbers and collective extents of the country’s tea small holder plantations.
Instead of making these basic distinctions for the sake of clarity, the author instead makes sweeping statements about the social and economic conditions of all plantation workers. Being only responsible for its own employees, the following reply will concern itself mainly with those aspects of the plantation industry which are under the purview of the RPCs.
With regard to wages the author alleges that families working in the plantation sector are among the poorest in Sri Lanka, and further alleges that a typical wage for a 10-hour day of plantation work is Rs. 380, and an average wage over 22 days of Rs. 510 per day. She further alleges that the average monthly income of for a plantation worker is Rs. 6,000. All of these allegations are blatantly false and have no grounding in reality whatsoever.
The reality of wages and prevalence of poverty in the estate sector
Contradictory to the author’s claims, the poverty head count (PHC) for the estate sector, has fallen drastically from 38.4% in 1992, down to 10.9% in 2013 and 8.8% in 2016 according to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES – Nuwara Eliya District)
Sri Lanka’s national poverty line – the accepted minimum expenditure per person per month required to meet basic needs – stands at Rs. 4,580 as at January 2018. Meanwhile, the global poverty line stands at US$ 1.90 per day, which translates to approximately Rs. 6,000 per month.
The author makes totally false claims that the daily wage of a plantation worker are between Rs. 380 and Rs. 510 per day. However current daily wage for plantation workers, inclusive of EPF/ETF payments stands at Rs. 805, and Rs. 730 when excluding EPF/ETF. The author makes the stunningly inaccurate claim that an average worker receives Rs. 6,000 a month, when the present figure is actually an average of Rs. 29,134.
Even by the author’s own totally inaccurate facts, these communities do not fall within the category of poverty in the local or international measures, particularly when factoring in the extensive support provided by the RPCs in terms of health, housing and welfare facilities provided to their employees. However, the author’s misstatement of facts is especially grievous when considering that the actual average wage of these employees is more than 5 times greater than the poverty line. How can the author claim in good faith that the majority of these communities live in poverty when they are all earning wages well above the poverty line?
To clearly illustrate this point, we once again make reference to the HIES which clearly shows an average household expenditure – which on average has 2 income earners in the estate sector - of Rs. 34,851 per month – a figure almost 6 times greater than the basic expenditure required to classify a person as falling below the poverty line.
Meanwhile, the districts which record the highest poverty headcounts are: Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, and Jaffna. None of these districts contain a single tea plantation.
Within RPC managed estates, only 15% of the population is actually employed and working in the estates, with the remainder continuing to reside within the estate, but finding employment outside the estate. Despite this fact, the RPCs continue to provide a wide range of benefits for all those living on the estates, irrespective of their employment status, including to the families and dependents of its employees.
These monthly wages, are further complemented by financial support on housing, healthcare and welfare from womb to tomb not only for the employee, but also for the entire family and all other dependents. This phenomenon is found only in Sri Lankan estates and nowhere else in the world.
Finally, the author claims that the cultural norm in the estates is that that 95% of female wages are picked up by the husbands of these employees, and drawing links to high rates of alcoholism in the among male plantation sector workers.
This is an issue which the RPCs have also raised in good faith as a serious concern on numerous occasions, and all of RPCs have over the years implemented numerous initiatives aimed at driving social changes to combat alcoholism and educate women on opportunities for social and economic empowerment.
One such initiative has been the automation of salary payments by RPCs, following which, the total salary of each worker, including female workers is transferred directly into their bank account. Such measures have provided a vital degree of financial independence to the female employees of RPCs and further such initiatives are being explored.
Incorrect statements on healthcare
The author makes the outrageous claim that 40% of babies born to families residing in the estates are underweight and goes on to imply that overall standards of healthcare are lacking in the estates. In truth, healthcare standards across the estate sector have been on the rise since the RPCs assumed management of the country’s plantations in 1992 with only 10% of RPC worker families recording low birth weights, and 20% low birth weights across the entire estate sector – spanning RPCs, private plantations and smallholder plantations.
The author also fails to take into account the numerous initiatives promoted by the RPCs with a view to further reducing maternal and infant mortality rates in the estates. These initiatives have had several positive repercussions for these communities as evidenced by the sharp reduction in infant mortality rates from 29% in 1991 down to 9.4% by 2012. The neo natal mortality rate of 21% came down to 3.2% while the stillbirth rate of 51% came down to 15% by 2008. Pre-natal mortality rate of 67% came down to 17% in 2008.
Institutional deliveries recorded increased to 99.9% by 2016.The maternal mortality rate of 18% in 1990 was brought down to 2.2% in 2008.
The author further demonstrates her ignorance of ground realities when she alleges that the children of estate workers are “not required to register with the government, but they are required to register with the plantation.” Such claims are demonstrably false. Every child born on the estate is registered at Government institutions office.
There is no requirement for these communities to register their children on the estate except in relation to the collection of maternity benefits from the RPCs. All other matters related to healthcare are the responsibility of the Government Medical Officer of Health for the area, including matters related to registration of children at birth, and anti-natal and post-natal care.
False claims on literacy, education
The author claims that literacy rates among plantation workers stand at only 66%, with schools being poorly maintained and lacking qualified teachers. Yet the author fails to take into account not only the fact that education is a service which the Government is responsible for providing, not the private sector, but also the fact that there have been drastic improvements to the quality of estate schools managed by the Government.
Today, the children of estate workers are able to enter universities and are offered scholarships by RPCs, while Technical Colleges have also been established in order to provide further opportunities for these youth to develop their skills, yet the author fails to take any of these major improvements into account.
False claims on housing and sanitation
The author claims that estate sector workers are forced to endure poor housing and sanitation conditions, totally disregarding the drastic improvements in housing and sanitation that have been enabled over the past two decades through the concerted efforts of the RPCs working in concert with the Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT), the Sri Lankan Government and local and international non-governmental organizations and donor agencies.
While the Planters’ Association fully acknowledges that more work is still required to further elevate standards of housing, sanitation and other amenities on the estates, the PA still asserts that any discussion on these conditions must also take into account the improvements that have been made to date, in order to understand what further improvements need to be made and what projects require priority.
Furthermore, improved new housing coverage among RPC estates stands at 30%, with 550 square foot two-room houses having being constructed on lands in the extent of 7 perches provided by RPCs. Each unit together with the land if valued at Rs. 1 million.
Meanwhile, as an interim measure, re-roofing is carried out annually replacing over 40,000 sheets a year. While the improvement of housing and sanitation remains a serious challenge, the author fails to take into account that many of the sub-standard conditions she described are relics of colonial times which have only started to be removed subsequent to the assumption of management of these estates by the RPCs. If such privatization, or worse, if colonial management had somehow persisted, doubtless the conditions on the estates would not have improved.
Moreover, the question of housing for RPC workers strikes at a deeper problem which has been alluded to by Sri Lanka Tea Board Chairman, Rohan Pethiyagoda when he noted that the proper place for these communities is not on the estates but in towns, rightfully putting the onus on the Government to finally take measures to develop and expand existing townships into modern urban units capable of supporting these communities. The author conveniently side-steps this complex and nuanced issue, and in doing so, only muddies the waters to any potential solution.
The vital need for an informed discussion
While the Planters’ Association of Ceylon welcomes and commends any assistance that can be rendered towards further improvement of the living conditions within the estates from any party - including the Presbyterian Mission Agency which the author is an employee of, we wish to express our shock and disappointment at the irresponsible and deeply inaccurate allegations levelled by the author. The Planters’ Association strongly and urges all stakeholders, including well-intentioned foreign Non-Governmental Organizations like the Presbyterian Mission Agency to refrain from obscuring the substantial contributions which RPCs have made towards the improvement of social, environmental and economic conditions within the estates.
An informed debate on such matters must take cognizance of these drastic improvements if they are to have any basis in reality. Failure to base such discussions on facts and verified information will only impede progress and development for all stakeholders.
Moving forward, the PA strong urges all stakeholders, including international non-governmental organizations like the Presbyterian Mission Agency to approach discussions with a degree of intellectual caution and to base any further discussions on conditions in the estate sector on actual evidence as opposed to anecdotes and outdated information.