More than a decade ago, during a visit to the plantations, I was impressed by the front-office operation at a tea factory; workers were smartly dressed and conditions to ensure cleanliness and quality manufacture were maintained, enhancing the dignity of labour.
Over the years, amidst accusations of exploitative labour, which industry officials vociferously deny, the industry has progressed and continues its key status as a primary commodity in Sri Lanka’s economy. But not without problems.
At present, the industry is facing a shortage of glyphosate while other fertilisers, which are also imported, are too costly to apply. A shortage of workers is also another issue as some work outside the estate and, in many cases, in tea smallholder plots.
Tea, while enjoying a steaming cup of morning tea, was on my mind when Pedris Appo – short for Appuhamy – retired agriculture expert who does a little farming, called on Thursday morning for a regular chat.
“Hello…..….hello, it’s good you called,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“I was in the midst of my column writing about tea,” I replied.
“Well, that’s a subject close to my heart,” he said, adding that the tea industry has been on a roller coaster-ride in the past few years.
He said that while one cannot escape the fact that the wages in estates still need to be increased to retain workers, the plantation sector has provided other benefits to workers who are no more a captive labour force.
“But will the plantations be sustainable under the current model where workers are paid daily for what they pluck?” he asked.
“I don’t think that model, which the industry calls a ‘supervisory’ model, is sustainable,” I said.
Sri Lanka’s tea industry is more than 150 years old, starting off when Scottish planter James Taylor planted a tea bush at Loolecondera Tea Estate in Kandy in 1867 and hasn’t changed much. The model where workers pluck tea leaves and are paid by the amount they pluck has been in existence for decades. But that seems to be changing.
The industry once had over half a million workers but that number has been drastically reduced today to 115,000 though the estates support a million dependents. Many of the workers find more lucrative work outside the estates but enjoy the benefits of housing, water, sanitation, health and other amenities as they continue to reside on the estates.
Wages on the estates have been dictated by a regular 2-year wages’ agreement between unions representing the workers and the management but that model too seems to be changing. While workers get a daily wage of Rs. 1,000 with other benefits, management companies (Regional Plantation Companies – RPCs) believe workers can double this income if they consent to a revenue-sharing model of work on the estates.
The RPCs came into being 30 years ago when state-owned estates were handed over to private companies as the Government suffered huge losses in managing these estates. The lease to RPCs of over 50 years means the privately-managed estates have another 20 years or more to go in managing these estates. While a few estates which are still managed by the Government are churning losses, the privately-managed ones have been turned around and are better managed, than they were under state-control.
Can workers get a decent wage on estates? The answer is yes, according to Dr. Roshan Rajadurai, a veteran industry official and media spokesperson for the Planters’ Association.
“We should not be negative about the tea industry. It can be sustained if we revert to a fully, home-grown solution,” he said, adding that the tea industry has been well managed even during the COVID-19 pandemic and current economic conditions. “Yes, like any business we pay what is affordable,” he said.
While the supervisory model is under stress in countries like India, the world’s largest tea producer, Sri Lanka is banking on the revenue-sharing model in which workers are given parcels of land (from the estate) on which they can grow tea and sell it to the estate. While growing tea on their ‘own’ plot of land, they still continue to work on the estate at whatever time they wish. Under this flexi-time model, Rajadurai says workers can earn Rs. 2,000 a day or Rs. 50-60,000 a month.
Unions, however, are opposed to this model as it means they risk losing their power and support base if workers are comfortable in working part-time on the estates and the balance in their own plot of land.
Thus the centuries-old supervisory model, which doesn’t work in modern times, has been given a fillip with the revenue-sharing model also called self-managed plots. Workers share their daily work schedule by working on their plots and also on the estate under a flexi-time structure. “All we need is the tea leaf……it doesn’t matter from where it comes; either from the estate or self-managed plots,” Rajadurai said.
The new model accounts for 40-50 per cent of the current tea crop from RPCs and is the way forward, industry officials believe. With the times changing on estates, managements find it difficult to retain workers who prefer to work outside where higher wages are offered particularly in tea smallholder plots.
However the revenue-sharing model provides an incentive to workers, since, apart from better earnings, it also ensures some dignity as they can be perceived as small entrepreneurs. This would also ensure they remain on the estates. With the number of workers dwindling on the estates, the estate management has a huge price to pay as they allow those who work outside the estates to continue to reside on the estates, enjoying various benefits.
Most of the workers tend to work on plots of smallholders who average 60 perches per tea smallholder. Tea smallholders account for a sizable 75 per cent of the total tea crop grown in Sri Lanka, with the balance 25 per cent coming from RPCs.
On a rare occasion, the trio was missing today with their margosa tree conversation as Mabel Rasthiyadu and Serapina had gone to their villages. Kussi Amma Sera was busy cooking lunch in the kitchen.
Even though tea estates may have their usual problems, this is a vital sector which continues to provide succour to a currently, ailing economy.