Focus/Spotlight

Wage war intensifies

By Skandha Gunasekara

The estate sector wage dispute continued last week with Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) refusing to amend an agreement reached with most trade unions and the Minister of Plantation Industries Navin Dissanayake also stating that the deal could not be changed.

The RPCs signatory to the Collective Agreement have firmly asserted that no additional sums would be included in the daily wage of a plantation sector worker and that the signed agreement would not be amended in any way despite several unions objecting to its contents.

Secretary General of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon Lalith Obeysekera informed The Sunday Morning that the plantation companies would not be giving anything beyond what was agreed to in the Collective Agreement.

“We are not going to give anything more in wages or incentives or otherwise than what have been agreed to already in the Collective Agreement. The agreement was signed between the recognised trade unions representing the majority of the plantation workers and the regional plantation companies and the agreement stands,” he said.

When questioned as to whether they would give in to the pressure exerted by the unions of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), Obeysekera responded in the negative.

“We have no obligation to listen to these other unions as they are not signatories to the collective agreement and never have been. Therefore, we have no reason to listen to their demands,” he said.

As reported by The Sunday Morning last week, although the unions representing a majority of the estate workers and the RPCs signed the Collective Agreement, several other unions not signatory to the agreement charged that the agreement was an injustice to the workers and called for its amendment.

The objections by the unions of the TPA last week resulted in the Government deciding to postpone the gazetting of the Collective Agreement.

However, Obeysekera pointed out that once the Collective Agreement is signed, it could not be amended unless abrogated by one of the signatories.

“Once the plantation sector trade unions and the regional plantation companies have signed the Collective Agreement, it comes into immediate effect. It’s valid for the next two years and it cannot be amended in any way, unless one of the signatories abrogate the agreement in which case it would fall on the wayside,” Obeysekera said.

He went on to say that the non-gazetting of the Collective Agreement was no impediment to it coming into force.

“The Collective Agreement is not required to be gazette to come into full effect. The gazetting of the agreement only expands it to the entire plantation industry,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Planters’ Association of Ceylon said that the wage increase in the Collective Agreement would cost the plantation companies Rs. 9 billion annually.

“What we signed in January costs almost Rs. 9 billion for companies. Although we agreed, this is difficult. We cannot afford another hike. Nothing more is possible,” the Planters’ Association of Ceylon Chairman S.S. Poholiyadde said speaking to The Sunday Morning.

He noted that the agreement was signed for two years and could not be revised at any point.

Responding to the general public, which has mostly sided with the workers on this issue due to human considerations, Poholiyadde added that unlike the general public, signatories to the agreement were aware of the internal functions of plantation industry and prioritised the sustainability of the industry.

“The public does not know the affordability and how the industry is working locally and globally, but the people who are involved with signatories have agreed to the agreement. I do not think those people want the industry to crash. They are more worried about it and have settled it already,” he added.

Agreement signed at last

On 28 January, the unions representing a majority of the estate sector workers, namely the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union (LJEWU), and Joint Plantation Trade Union Centre (JPTUC), along with representatives of the RPCs, representatives of the Ceylon Employers Federation, and other stakeholders signed the Collective Agreement in the presence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The signed Collective Agreement saw the trade unions, which earlier demanded a Rs. 1000 basic daily wage, bring down their demand to accept the offer by RPCs to increase the basic wage to Rs. 700 – an increase of Rs. 75 from the earlier offer of Rs. 625 made by the plantation companies.

The representatives from CWC, LJEWU, and JPTUC, present at the meeting, agreed to the Rs. 700 as well as an increment of Rs. 20 from the current Rs. 30 in Price Share Supplement (PSS), bringing the total daily wage to Rs 750.

The Collective Agreement also saw a hike in the payment of additional output by Rs. 15 per kg.
However, the Rs. 140 incentive allowance that was earlier a part of the Collective Agreement was removed this time around.

Discontent remains

The TPA, consisting of Minister Mano Ganesan’s Democratic Left Front, Minister Palany Digambaram’s National Union of Workers, and Minister Velusami Radhakrishnan’s Up-Country People’s Front, opposed the signed Collective Agreement and demanded that the Rs. 140 incentive allowance be included in the agreement.

Minister of Hill Country, New Villages, Infrastructure, and Community Development Palany Digambaram, speaking to The Sunday Morning, said that the unions that had signed the agreement had betrayed the estate sector workers by failing to attain the promised Rs. 1000 daily wage.

“It is a grave injustice that is being done to the plantation workers. They (signatory unions), like us, demanded a Rs. 1000 daily wage during the negotiations stage but then went on to agree to a lesser amount of Rs. 750. The incentive allowance too has been removed. These unions have betrayed their people in the plantation sector. We demand that the Rs. 140 incentive allowance be included back in the agreement at the least,” Digambaram said.

He then threatened to resign from his ministerial portfolio and leave the United National Party-led Government, if their demands were not met.

“We have been in the Government and supported it throughout. We saved it and the Prime Minister twice – once during the No-confidence Motion and again during the recent constitutional coup. We will decide whether to remain in the Government or not depending on the outcome of the discussion with the plantation companies.”

Protests by plantation workers were carried out almost daily since the Collective Agreement was signed on 28 January, particularly on the Hatton-Colombo road, bringing traffic to a standstill on many occasions.

Subsequently, a meeting was held between the heads of the TPA, representatives of the plantation companies, Minister of Plantation Industries Dissanayake, and Minister of Labour Ravindra Samaraweera.

The meeting was chaired by Advisor to the Prime Minister R. Paskaralingam.

Following the meeting, Non-Cabinet Minister of Special Area Development and Leader of the Up-Country People’s Front Velusami Radhakrishnan told The Sunday Morning that the discussions had been unfruitful.

“We could not come to an agreement on the issue. The plantation companies refused to meet our demands. We will now take this matter up with the Prime Minister directly,” he said.

He went on to say that if their demands weren’t met and a positive outcome for the plantation workers achieved, the TPA would take necessary steps including the possibility of vacating their ministerial posts and leaving the Government.

Meanwhile, Minister of Plantation Industries Dissanayake speaking to The Sunday Morning pointed out that the Collective Agreement could not be amended at this stage and that the addition of the attendance allowance would not be possible legally.

“The agreement comes into affect once it is signed and is valid for two years thereafter. It cannot be amended. So the problem arises how to include another allowance as part of the daily wage of the workers,” he said.

He said that it would require Rs 1.2 billion annually to pay the Rs. 50 attendance allowance of the plantation workers and that it had been decided at the meeting to utilise the Rs. 1.2 billion for a different cause that would benefit the plantation workers.

He said that he made a formal request from Minister Digambaram to come up with a proposal to utilise the money.

“I have written to Minister Digambaram and requested that he come up with a proposal on how to better utilise the Rs. 1.2 billion. I think it could be put to better use for the benefit of the plantation workers instead of giving it as a Rs. 50 attendance allowance.”

He also noted that half of the Rs. 1.2 billion would be contributed by the RPCs while the remainder would come from the Treasury.