Photo courtesy of The Howarths

Over the last two decades the plantation sector has undergone huge changes in Sri Lanka including a sharp reduction in the labour force, poor social welfare provision, lower productivity and a rapid increase in non-estate workers within the plantations.

At present of the 1.5 million hill country Tamils, about 139,000 registered workers remain in tea plantations. During the past 10 years, 30 to 40 percent of workers have left the estates. This pattern not only indicates the drastic increase in non-estate workers but also highlights serious issues they face. Non-estate workers are excluded by the privatized plantation management, state owned plantation companies and government institutions in welfare provision, social security benefits and other material gains. A significant number of non-estate workers are moving to the nearby villages, vegetable gardens, construction sites and suburban areas as migrant workers for daily wages engaging in temporary jobs. More than 50,000 youth are working in Colombo in different sectors including doing trade and business in Pettah. Yet they are often exploited and underpaid.

About 80  percent of the upcountry workers returned to their estates after the pandemic-imposed restrictions. Between 30 to 40 percent remain unemployed and are dependents. The community has been hit by economic hardship in the wake of Covid-19 and are finding it difficult to feed their children, provide online education and fulfil other basic needs.

From 1972 to 1975, the British-owned plantations were nationalized and the management of the plantations were entrusted to the State-Owned Enterprise (SOEs) of the State Plantation Corporation (SPC) and two other institutions, the Upcountry Estate Development Board (USAWASAMA) and Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB). The three institutions controlled around 35 percent of the plantation agriculture in the country. But USAWASAMA, which managed 107 estates with 29,500 hectares, was disbanded at the end of 1977 on the grounds of inefficiency, and its properties were distributed between the SLSPC and JEDB.

Poor governance, wage and economic hardships

At the time of privatization the JEDB and SLSPC retained a total of 12,335 hectares of tea land. Now they have 6,995 hectares. As a result, workers have lost their livelihoods and been pushed to leave the estates or remain in hunger, chronic poverty and desperation. The estate management does not allow workers to have income generating activities even on abandoned land. Youth who returned from Colombo after the Covid-19 outbreak tried to make use of abandoned land for their livelihoods but they were not allowed to do so by the estate management.

Due to poor management, workers are being given only three or four days of work a week so they cannot depend on the sector owing to the increasing cost of living and other forms of economic and social pressure. This is because the income they earn from estate work is insufficient to cover their monthly expenses. They now have to spend additional money for facemasks, sanitizer and mobile data for online education. The management does not provide even basic safety and health support to workers during the pandemic despite knowing that it is one of the few sectors that has functioned and contributed to export income at a time of global economic crisis. The current wage model remains at a subsistence level. Although they get work on an average of 16 days per month, their salary does not exceed Rs. 12,000. This has led to constant migration to overcome poverty and meet daily needs.

School dropout is a crucial problem among the children living in state owned estates. Parents cannot manage educational expenses with their poor salaries and persistent poverty so this pattern has significantly increased over the past 10 years.

Poor productivity has led to persistent profit loss and severe welfare issues; the management has stopped registering workers as permanent cadre because they prefer to run the estates with casual workers since it reduces the cost of administration. Land encroachment for business and tourism remains on the rise. Owing to poor maintenance and non-use of huge areas of land, outsiders have captured estate land for various purposes. Workers have been denied this right for decades although they deserve land rights as citizens of the country. Locally influential people occupy the lands with the support of politicians and there is no action taken either by the estate management or top administration. Politicians of the ruling government want capture unused lands in state-owned plantations for different uses including tourism.

Such arbitrary takeover of land could lead to violent conflict between the estate resident community and outsiders therefore there must be a negotiated settlement. Trade unions are not powerful or influential due to poor union membership and splits among the unions, which has a detrimental effect on workers’ rights, bargaining power and industrial relations. An effective union can fight, demand and protest for workers’ rights. Due to the inefficient status of unions, there are constant violations of labour rights in wage issues, social security payments such as EPF and ETF, setting of norms for daily work, cleaning the tea field and applying fertilizers and chemicals on time. In some instances, salaries are not provided regularly. Workers in the estates are far less likely to receive their EPF and ETF funds.

Occupational health and safety

Occupational health and safety have a devastating impact due to poor maintenance. Tea fields are becoming unsafe places to work with the presence of dangerous animals including snakes, leopards and insects. In May and June, stings by bees and wasps are common. When accidents occur or when workers fall ill with diseases caused by working conditions, they are not treated.

Heath service provision

Health services managed by the estate management are extremely poor. Some estates don’t have emergency medical assistance or ambulance facilities so workers have to hire trishaws to reach to the nearest hospital; they get only three days of medical leave. Covid-19 has worsened the health crisis since the plantation health sector is excluded from the national health system so people cannot get access to treatment, awareness education or health guidelines related to the pandemic. There are many Covid-19 patients being identified on plantations every day as well as several deaths. Housing and social structures are key factors for the fast spread of the virus.

Social welfare

The drastic drop in social welfare is another issue affecting the community. The management has stopped all welfare provisions because companies say they running at loss. Access to sanitation, decent housing, clean and safe drinking water and other amenities are lacking. If the welfare of workers was improved, they would contribute to better maintenance of estates and also increase their productivity.

The pandemic has closed external income avenues for non-workers and they have also not been provided the Rs. 5,000 benefit on the grounds that they should be looked after by the plantation management. But the management has not provided any support such as dry food and medical assistance even to permanent workers during the pandemic.

When it comes to public goods and service provision including pandemic relief, estate workers are systematically excluded, demonstrating the institutional and structural discrimination on the part of government institutions where officials draw a line between estates and villages in the provision of services and goods. If this trend continues it will lead to frustration, poor political participation and unnecessary conflicts. There is an urgent need for long lasting solutions and reforms to address underlying issues faced by plantation people in state-owned estates and industry as a whole.

A.S. Chandrabose is Professor of Social Studie at the Open University of Sri Lanka and Dr. R. Ramesh is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Peradeniya