Plantation Ministry to discuss relief for estate workers

  • UN’s slavery expert highlights workers’ ‘inhumane’ conditions

By Buddhika Samaraweera

The Ministry of Plantation is to discuss with the plantation companies the formulation of a programme to provide relief to the plantation workers who are currently facing difficulties due to the significant increase in the prices of essential commodities.

It has been reported in recent days that the plantation workers are facing many difficulties due to the increase in the prices of essential commodities, especially wheat flour.

Accordingly, when contacted by The Morning to inquire as to whether the Plantation Ministry has any plans to formulate a programme to provide relief to the plantation workers, the Plantation Ministry Secretary Raveendra Hewavitharana stated that although the Plantation Ministry is not in a position to intervene directly, it is possible to formulate some relief in consultation with the plantation companies.

He said: “At present the majority of plantation workers live on lands owned by plantation companies. Therefore, each company has formulated various programmes for their welfare. Especially, as the Plantation Ministry does not have the provisions to implement such a programme, but we can negotiate with the plantation companies and implement a programme such as giving plantation workers some land to grow vegetables.”

Hewavitharana also said that a programme was already underway to remove barriers to plantation workers’ activities such as dairy production and cultivation, adding that the said programme could be further expanded in the light of the current situation.

The prices of essential commodities have been hiked significantly in the recent past. Plantation workers mostly consume food made of wheat flour and recently the price of 1 kilogramme (kg) of wheat flour went up by Rs. 17.50. In addition, the prices of many other goods such as rice, vegetables, and bread have gone up.

Meanwhile, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery Tomoya Obokata, concluding his recent visit to Sri Lanka, has said that Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaha Tamil workers are living in “inhumane and degrading” conditions.

“Contemporary forms of slavery have an ethnic dimension. In particular, Malaiyaha Tamils – who were brought from India to work in the plantation sector 200 years ago – continue to face multiple forms of discrimination based on their origin,” he said.

Roughly 1.5 lakh people from the community, with a population over 10 lakh, are engaged in direct labour in the estates, and most of them are women. Their daily wage of Rs. 1,000 – won after sustained protests in recent years – is tied to an arduous target of 18-22 kg of plucked tea leaves every day, to be met rain or shine, while braving leeches and wasp attacks. A prominent item in Sri Lanka’s export basket – apart from garments, rubber, and spices – tea brings roughly $ 1.3 billion a year into the country.

Pointing to the workers’ colonial-era line room accommodation, where up to 10 people live in a 10×12 space, poor sanitation, and the persisting denial of land rights to the community, Obokata said last Friday (3): “While I am aware that some alternative houses are built, for instance, in co-operation with the Indian government, I was appalled to see that the inhumane and degrading living conditions in the line houses persist to the present day.”