Plantation positivism

Tuesday, 16 August 2011 00:12 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Cheranka Mendis

The plantation sector in 2010 closed the year on an optimistic note, showing positive results across the industry. The sector, one of the main foreign exchange generators to the country, has managed to pull through with high prices and quality improvements, resulting in better times for the planters.

Planters Association of Ceylon Chairman Lalith Obeyesekera speaking at the 157th Annual General Meeting of the association stated that 2010 had been a positive experience for the sector with all plantation crops showing good results. He stated that the trend was likely to continue through this year as well, if all other factors remain constant.

Obeyesekera also stated that the Government led by Plantations Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe has shown increasing support to realise the vision of taking the plantation industry forward by ensuring contribution from all stakeholders.

“Minister Samarasinghe has adopted the consultative process where all stakeholders have been drawn in when planning various reconstituted boards and committees. Accepted corporate leaders have been appointed to head these regulatory and advisory bodies, reaffirming the Government’s policy of re-establishing public-private partnerships,” Obeyesekera said.

He noted that Samarasinghe had been able to resolve many of the issues facing the corporate sector of the producer segment by re-establishing the ‘golden shareholder meeting’ after a lapse of three years.

The issues, both complex and varied, have stemmed from the lack of proper understanding within the said party and have hindered the growth of the sector during the past few years. The Minister had also adopted a positive approach in settling the highly-contagious drawbacks faced by the Land Reforms Commission with regard to privatisation, further promoting the stabilisation of the sector, Obeyesekera said.

Highlights of 2010

Obeyesekera noted the following as key areas of focus during 2010:

=Wage increase granted in the recently-concluded Collective Agreement

“When we commenced negotiations there was a collective decision by companies to obtain the services of an independent consultant to undertake a comprehensive study of the plantation sector in terms of sustainability of the industry,” he stated.

Accordingly, the study was conducted by Dr. Ramani Goonetilleke, an economist and independent consultant closed linked to the ILO. The report is considered a highly-comprehensive document and has been presented to the policymakers and unions.

Obeyesekera asserted that the report clearly mentioned that increase in productivity was fundamental for the growth of the sector. “We tried our best to link the recently-concluded wage increase to productivity,” he said, “but unfortunately this did not lead to any success. A reason is that during the last wage agreement we managed to get a productivity component in, but unfortunately due to our inability to work on our part, the union demanded the segment be taken away this time.”

Commenting on the fact that over the years public perception has been that the plantation community must be given a better deal, Obeyesekera stated that people have failed to realise that facilities and wages provided by the sector over time had been substantial compared to other sectors.

“The first Collective Agreement was signed in 1998 and through this the wage package was revised to Rs. 101. Today plantation worker enjoys a package of Rs. 515 per day, the increase therefore during the period is approximately 500%,” he assured. “I say with responsibility that there is no industry that can boast of an increase of a wage package of this magnitude during the period under consideration.”

Disagreeing with reports which have been made over the years categorising plantation workers as those in ‘poverty’ and where employment benefits given are not adequate, Obeyesekera said: “Poverty is a very causal word often referred to by many who have not stopped to think what it really means. Poverty cannot directly be linked to the income of a person. It depends on many factors – from a layman’s point of view, the manner in which a person spends the money is often linked to the question of poverty. Therefore, the poverty tag often used on plantation workers is a misconception as there are many other social factors related to the issue.”

=Government decision on the implementation of a fertiliser subsidy to the agriculture sector.

=Difficulties experienced by regional plantation companies in carrying out development plans.

The companies had varying plans for development and diversification into other areas when they came into management but couldn’t go through with many due to misinformation and misconception.

“Due to the sensitivity of the industry and the failure in some Government agencies in accepting the spirit of privatisation under which RPCs were formulated, many companies could not perform as expected.”

He asserted that the association had taken up the matter with Minister Samarasinghe as well and requested him to convince policymakers to permit the management plans to go ahead unhindered as that was the only way the industry could move forward.

Pix by Upul Abayasekara