Estate wage revision: Storm in tea cup brewing?

Thursday, 31 March 2011 02:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Shezna Shums

Discussions are currently on between the plantation trade unions and the plantation companies regarding the renewal of the MoU that will expire today (31 March).

The main issue that is to be addressed is regarding the minimum wage of a plantation worker, which is a major factor affecting the plantation workers.

The MoU signed between the unions and the plantation companies is renewed once every two years, and by end of March is when the collective agreement ends.

Economic Affairs Deputy Minister Muthu Sivalingam told the Daily FT that it is not compulsory to make a decision by the end of March as the discussions were still continuing. He said that payments to the workers will be done as usual for the month of April.

“Wages is the main issue for discussion,” stressed Sivalingam.

Meanwhile a representative of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, Lalith Obeysekera said that by next week more information will be available on the discussions and the agreement reached by the three signatories who are parties this collective agreement.

He explained that the industry will have to continue its work in a sustainable manner and at the same time be affordable.

“If each company has between 12,000 to 15,000 workers under them, even a one rupee increase is a huge amount, let alone a 10 rupee increase,” he said further explaining that even a small increase may eventually run into millions of rupees for the companies.

“So we have to look at this issue in a manner that will be affordable and sustainable to the companies involved as well,” he said.

The Ceylon Workers’ Congress in the meantime has sent a letter asking the Federation for a date and time and a venue in Colombo to meet and start discussions.

Presently a plantation worker earns a basic salary of Rs. 295 and an incentive payment  for extra leaves picked per day, and working for 25 days a month which it is argued would increase his/her salary to Rs. 500 a day.

The problem is with this incentive payment scheme, as the working conditions do not permit extra leaves to be picked; or sometimes the estate management itself does not provide the required number of days’of work to the tea pluckers.

Although the argument that incentives increase the daily earnings of a worker to Rs.500 looks good on paper, actual situations such as harsh weather conditions, long hours of work, tea bushes not sprouting enough leaf because of insufficient fertiliser etc. result in the pluckers picking a lesser amount of tea leaves and consequently their earnings for the day being considerably lower. These situations also affect their social and family life.

The Ceylon Workers’ Alliance Leader S. Sathasivam said that this was the main issue that would be brought up when the MoU is discussed.

Workers who also pluck over 16 to 18 kilos of tea leaves are given an extra amount of money, however is some estates there may not be that much of tea to be plucked thereby reducing the daily incentive based salary of a tea plucker.

Rains have also affected some tea estates and the final output of tea leaves maybe less, which again affects the tea pluckers incentive based payment.

It was highlighted that when the MoU was signed two years ago for an incentive payment scheme which would push up a worker’s salary to Rs.500 per day the circumstances mentioned above were not taken into consideration thereby making the worker actually the loser.

The Ceylon Workers’ Alliance wants the basic salary of a tea plucker to be increased to Rs. 500 without the incentive payment, and any incentive payments if any for the extra leaves picked be made over and above the Rs. 500 daily wage.

The Ceylon Workers’ Alliance is also educating the estate workers on the new conditions that are being put forward and how it will help them to get a basic salary of Rs. 500 a day, and other incentives payments rather than a low basic daily wage on the pretext of making incentives payments.