Estate Sector Workers: A Forgotten Community amidst Crisis

The Ministry of Plantation Industries is awaiting feedback from other State agencies to move ahead with a proposed relief package for estate sector communities who are struggling to survive amidst the current crisis.

Many segments of the estate community are struggling to get by with no relief in sight, while being affected by food shortages and high inflation.

A recent survey done by the World Food Programme (WFP) titled ‘Sri Lanka: Remote Household Food Security Surveys’ has found that 51% of households in estate areas are food insecure, compared with 43% and 34% for urban and rural areas.

Higher cost of survival

Institute of Social Development Executive Director Muthulingam Periyasamy told The Sunday Morning that a family of four would require at least Rs. 60,000 each month to survive due to higher costs of goods within the estate sector compared to outside.

“For a family of four it now costs a minimum of Rs. 60,000 a month. Flour is sold at higher prices in the estates. Outside the estates flour is sold at Rs. 300-400 but in the estates a kilo of flour is Rs. 450 or more. It is the same with rice. The estate sector people have to pay more within the estates than those buying rice in other areas of the country. Rs. 1,500 is needed for a day for a family to buy basic necessities,” he said.

Periyasamy charged that the plight of the estate communities was worsened by the failure of the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) to provide proper wages: “The companies claim that they pay Rs. 1,000 daily for 18 kg but the reality is that workers are asked to bring 23 kg and if they bring only 20 kg, they are paid only half of the salary. This differs from company to company.”

He added that the companies were reducing the number of working days to ensure less would be paid to workers, thereby reducing the costs incurred. “Very rarely do these companies give 25 days per worker each month. Instead, they give a maximum of 12-15 days a month because they want to keep the salary between Rs. 12,000 and Rs. 15,000. They give 25 days of work only when there is a yield. They are maintaining the costs they incurred before the Rs. 1,000 was agreed upon.”

He alleged that, in fact, only Rs. 900 was given as basic wage, affecting the EPF and ETF granted to the workers. “With regard to the Rs. 1,000 daily wage itself, the companies are actually paying Rs. 900 as the basic salary while the remaining Rs. 100 is given as an incentive. Therefore, the EPF and ETF of the workers are based on the Rs. 900,” he explained, adding that as a result of this terrible situation, more members of the estate communities were opting to migrate abroad.

“Because of these conditions, there is high migration within the estate sector. Many are leaving the country to work as domestic servants overseas.”

He then called on the Government to provide concessions to bring relief in these trying times: “The Government should have a special programme for the estate sector. Former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa said that they would give flour at a concessionary rate but that never materialised. The Government must provide subsidies to the estate sector people as well as other forms of relief.”

RPCs refute allegations

Meanwhile, the RPCs refuted allegations that Rs. 1,000 was not being paid.

“That is a fallacy. We have told the Wages Board as well as the Ministry that if we are not paying any worker after they have done a day’s work, then the authorities can take action against any company. These are just baseless allegations. We have given them full employment throughout the crisis and even during Covid. We have looked after our workers throughout all this. But nobody is talking about that,” Planters’ Association Media Spokesman Roshan Rajadurai told The Sunday Morning.

He added that they were paying the Rs. 1,000 basic salary and paying EPF/ETF on that amount and were not giving Rs. 900 as a basic salary and Rs. 100 as incentive.

He asserted that only the plantation sector was providing a Rs. 1,000 daily wage from all companies under the Wages Board. “We are the only sector in the Wages Board giving a Rs. 1,000 daily wage; even the garment sector has not given Rs. 1,000. Yes, inflation is high and there’s no question about that, but I don’t think anyone should lay the blame on us; this should be directed to the politicians.”

He charged that the overwhelming poverty in the hill country estate communities was due to alcoholism and bad household financial management. “There is so much poverty because of their household domestic consumption. Alcoholism is rampant and household cash management is very poor in the hill country estate sector. That is the reason for their poverty. We have estates in the low country which earn less but their quality of life is far superior.”

He went on to say that the plantation sector was struggling to continue operations due to the economic crisis. “The industry is struggling. Rubber prices have come down by Rs. 500 overnight while fertiliser prices have increased by 25 times and fuel prices have increased fourfold. We are also now struggling for the continuance of the industry. Our cost has gone up and yield has gone down because of the lack of fertiliser.”

Meanwhile, State Minister of Plantation Industries Lohan Ratwatte said that his Ministry had proposed concessions. “We have proposed to give concessions and care packages to the estate communities. Now we are waiting for a response from the Government institutions on this proposal.”