They suffer for our cuppa

Text and pictures by Easwaran Rutnam in Hatton

Tea is considered Sri Lanka’s favourite drink. Sri Lanka is also one of the top tea exporters in the world.

However, while we enjoy a good cup of tea, the people who work tirelessly to give us what we enjoy have little to be happy about.

As the country celebrated the Sinhala and Tamil New Year on a grand scale last week, some plantation workers were engaged in part-time jobs to earn some extra money to manage their daily needs.

Last week, The Sunday Morning visited line homes within the Fruithill Division of Strathdon Estate in Hatton, managed by the Strathdon Group, and saw first-hand the poor conditions some families were living in.

The Sathgunarajah family is among the plantation workers who are struggling to live a decent life with what they earn. Sathgunarajah and his wife Poomalar have four children. He works in the estate and when he has time, he also does a part-time job. She plucks tea in the estate.

“I work in the estate and also do side jobs to earn more money to educate my children, feed the family, and manage our daily needs,” Sathgunarajah told The Sunday Morning.

Of the four children, one is 11 years old, one 10, the other four, and the youngest is two-and-a-half years old.

Sathgunarajah said he earns approximately Rs. 10,000-15,000 a month by working in the estate and a bit more by doing some part-time work as well. He said with the money he earns and the money his wife earns, he is barely able to manage things at home.

“Just last week, all four of our children fell sick, so I had to take them to the hospital. That cost me a lot because I had to hire a three-wheeler to take them and had to purchase some of the medicine from outside,” he claimed.

Sathgunarajah recalls that he was among the estate workers who demanded a daily wage of Rs. 1,000, but had to be content with a daily wage of Rs. 700. Plantation trade unions signed a collective agreement with plantation companies this year, agreeing to Rs. 700 as the daily wage.

In addition, the price share supplement which is given to employees from the earnings of the company by selling tea was also agreed to be increased from Rs. 30 to Rs. 50. Through the 2019 Budget, the Government had decided to pay Rs. 50 a day to increase the daily wage of estate workers.

However, Sathgunarajah said that Rs. 50 has not yet been added to the daily wage of estate workers.

“We get paid only if we go to work. If by any possibility our family members fall sick and we need to take a day or more than that, we don’t get paid for those days,” he said.

An open field toilet

Sathgunarajah lives in a small house among the line homes with a self-made firewood cooker at the entrance and a bedroom which is the only other room.

His house, like most houses within the line homes in the Fruithill Division, does not have a toilet. The family uses a nearby field for this purpose and draw water from a nearby river.

“Even the river water is now dirty, so we cannot have a proper bath using that water,” Sathgunarajah said.

Poomalar said, come rain or shine, they have no choice but to use the open field near their house as a toilet. As a woman, she has concerns about her safety and dignity when using a shrub area as a lavatory, but she has no choice.

“Those who can afford to construct a toilet in their house have done so, but most of those living here do not have their own toilets,” Poomalar said.

While Sathgunarajah’s family use an adjoining field as a toilet, there are others who have toilets, but the toilets are located opposite their homes. This lack of proper facilities raises serious concerns over cleanliness and the spread of various infections.

When there is heavy rain, the access routes to the houses are often flooded, adding to the hardship faced by the families.

In 2013, the entire area was flooded and the threat of similar flooding in the future remains as there isn’t a proper drainage system.

Debt trap

Vijeyalakshmi, another resident of the Fruithill Division of the estate and a mother of three, said that she is among several plantation sector women caught in a debt trap. She had taken a loan for personal reasons after being approached by representatives of a private bank.

The loan is offered at a reasonable interest rate, but most women are unable to meet their commitments resulting in them being forced to take another loan to pay the earlier loan, burying them deeper into a financial crisis.

She said that she will need at least around Rs. 5,000 a week to manage the house with her husband.

Children living in line homes wish for a better future and have high expectations. Sathgunarajah’s three school-going children go to school on their own as their parents need to be at work early.

Sathgunarajah said he cannot afford to pay and send his children for private tuition to ensure they study well and get good jobs.

Vijeyalakshmi also said her children have high expectations, but she is not sure how much of it will become reality.

One of her sons is working in Colombo. She said he had decided to seek employment in Colombo owing to the difficulties faced by them.

“We need to somehow educate our children, so we are continuing to stay here, despite the difficulties, or else it might be worse for us if we leave,” Vijeyalakshmi said.

Vijeyalakshmi’s youngest son said he wanted to be a policeman when he grows up. Her daughter is hoping to re-sit the Advanced Level Examination this year. She said, once she completes her studies, she will decide what to do next.

Failed politicians

Kamalhasan, a resident of the housing scheme, said that most politicians representing the estate community have deceived the plantation workers by failing to address their core concerns.

He said that despite several protests being staged, the politicians representing the estate community were unable to convince the plantation companies to agree to a daily wage of Rs. 1,000. He noted that most politicians just go on stage and express their views on the issue but do not act.

“However, when there is an election, you will see them at our doorstep asking for our vote,” he said.

Parliamentarians and Ministers Palani Digambaram, Arumugam Thondaman, Vadivel Suresh, V. Radhakrishnan, and Mano Ganesan were involved in talks with Minister of Plantation Industries Navin Dissanayake and the plantation companies, pushing for a daily wage of Rs. 1,000.

However, after weeks of deliberations, the final agreement reached was for a Rs. 700 daily wage plus an additional Rs. 30-50.

As per the revised agreement signed in February, a daily basic wage of Rs. 700 plus a price share supplement (PSS) of Rs. 50 – totalling Rs. 750 – is the only remuneration a worker would receive based on the plucking norm.

No attendance or productivity incentives have been included within the scope of the revised agreement, effectively capping estate workers’ earnings to Rs. 750 a day plus overkilos.

The revised agreement primarily focused on increasing the daily take-home wage without emphasis to previously established attendance and productivity incentives. The agreement guaranteed a rate of Rs. 40 on every kilo harvested above the estate norm, thereby establishing a pathway for workers to earn above Rs. 1,000 per day. Previously, the overkilo rate stood at Rs. 28.75 per kilo harvested above the estate norm.

Better housing

Meanwhile, plantation workers have been promised better housing under the Indian Housing Project and the Government-sponsored project.

Some families have already been given new houses while others are on the waiting list. Plantation workers need to let go of the existing line homes in order to be given a deed to the new house.

“We are ready to go and we have been promised a new house, but we have no idea when the house will be given,” Sathgunarajah said.

The Sunday Morning learnt that around 50 line homes in the Fruithill Division have been marked to be demolished, moving the workers to new houses.

However, the delay to move families living in the Fruithill Division is a result of politicians waiting for the right time to hand over the deeds at a public event. With elections around the corner, there is no doubt the handing over of the deeds will be used as a political tool to secure votes.

Cannot build new houses in a day: Digambaram

Minister of Hill Country New Villages, Infrastructure, and Community Development Palani Digambaram said the Government is addressing the housing issue of the estate community, but needs time.

He told The Sunday Morning that the current Government has taken steps with the assistance of the Indian Government to construct new houses for the estate community.

However, Digambaram noted that practically, it will take time as funds are needed for housing projects carried out solely by the Sri Lankan Government.

How can one expect the housing issue to be addressed in a day or two? It will take time. We are doing our best,” he said.

Digambaram also alleged that plantation companies are not doing enough to address the welfare issues of the plantation workers.

He said that the push for a Rs. 1,000 daily wage was a reasonable demand as the daily wage is all that plantation companies give their workers.

Minister Digambaram, however, admitted that plantation companies are also strapped for cash these days and so, can do very little.

Plantation companies suffering financially: Planters’ Association

Plantation companies said they are suffering financially and the only way they could get out of the rut was to be allowed to operate independently without outside interference.

Planters’ Association of Ceylon Secretary General Lalith Obeysekera told The Sunday Morning that since the plantation sector was privatised to revive the industry, interference from the authorities was preventing the industry from moving forward.

Obeysekera also insisted that steps had been taken to provide new houses to the estate workers in order to do away with line homes. He said that over 21,000 houses have already been constructed out of around a target of 300,000 new houses.

He also said that most of the people living in line homes in the estates are not working in the estate.

Line homes are given only to estate workers, but the next generation of workers has taken over the homes and is now demanding new houses.

Obeysekera also said that workers are given 17 days of paid leave a year, as per the current agreement which was formulated with the participation of trade unions and others. He said that when 17 days of paid leave are given for a year, additional paid leave cannot be approved.

“If the old agreement was in place, things would have been different. But this is what the unions wanted. So now, workers will need to stick to it,” he said.