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SRI LANKA: Labour Shortages Plunge Tea Estates Into Doldrums

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Apr 18 2007 (IPS) - Once Sri Lanka&#39s sunshine crop and its top export earner, tea is no longer the answer to the country&#39s economic ills, thanks to a serious shortage of plantation workers that began with the mass expulsion of &#39Indian Tamils&#39 in the 1960s.

In October 1964, India and Sri Lanka signed an accord under which 600,000 plantation workers called &#39Indian Tamils&#39 were repatriated in phases to India. Some 375,000 were granted Sri Lankan citizenship but, of these, a large number were resettled in the north and east of the island where &#39Sri Lankan Tamils&#39 were already predominant.

Among those who remained on the tea estates, the tradition of children of tea pluckers following in the profession was lost. With new opportunities available, the children of estate workers go to local universities and embark on careers like medicine.

"I am not going to send my two children to the estate to work. I want them to be happy in better jobs," says P. Jayarani from a hill country plantation in Hatton. &#39&#39There is no dignity of labour in tea plantation work.&#39&#39

S. Rajeswarie, another estate worker of Indian origin, wants her children out of the estates. "I have been working here for the last 13 years without any improvement in my life. I will not send my children to an estate to work even if they want to. I want a better life for them."

Plantation officials say there is a growing reluctance on the part of the children of workers to follow their parents and grandparents who were brought to Sri Lanka by British planters during colonial rule, more than a century ago, from what is now Tamil Nadu in South India.

On top of that, the tea industry no longer attracts the best managerial talent. A couple of decades ago the cream of school-leavers from Colombo&#39s most prestigious schools joined plantations as junior managers and lived the high life in sprawling colonial bungalows with plenty of servants and a social life that revolved around the splendid clubhouses left behind by the British.

But colonial times were far different from the situation today with strong unionisation and greater awareness among workers of their rights – seen in the frequent strikes that young managers find hard to handle.

"Married males who are in middle management do not like working in a plantation unlike their predecessors," J. Abeywickrama, secretary in the ministry of plantations, told IPS.

Dhayan Madawala, who heads two plantation companies, says changing lifestyles have deterred managers from taking up jobs in the estates. "Schooling of the children and diverse opportunities draw them away,&#39&#39 he said. Officials say each year estates suffer a 10 percent reduction in both middle management and estate labour.

There are now only 400,000 real tea workers in a population of about one million people who work and live on the estates. Citing a World Bank study, Malin Goonatillake, secretary general of the Planters&#39 Association that represents plantation companies, said that the number of tea workers in each family living on the estates has statistically dropped from 2.6 workers to 1.9.

"This means that fewer members living on estates are working inside. They are probably doing jobs outside while enjoying all benefits inside the plantations like free housing, medical care for their children and special attendants to take care of the children while the parents are at work,&#39&#39 said Goonatillake.

Goonatillake expects plantations companies facing a labour shortage to go for mechanisation like the use of shears for plucking &#39two leaves and a bud&#39, instead of manual plucking. "Already that is happening."

Yet, mechanisation may not be the way out as finger plucking, especially by women workers, is what Sri Lanka is famous for and machines could turn away buyers. "If you use machines for plucking we will lose the market we have," ministry secretary Abeywickrema said.

One option under discussion in some quarters to overcome the labour shortage is for companies to lease out plantation lots to workers, buy their leaf and only run the factories.

G. Rasaiah, senior vice-president of a regional branch of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, says many youngsters want to further their education and learn computer skills and become proficient in English at institutes that have sprung up all over the hill country.

Sri Lankan tea, grown in the central hills, midlands and hilly, low country areas still produces what is considered among the world&#39s finest teas. With competition coming from new growers like Kenya, Sri Lanka is shifting from traditional bulk tea production to packaged tea and has succeeded against global brands like &#39Lipton&#39 or India&#39s &#39Tata&#39 range.

There are no new plantations coming up and some bigger plantation companies like the John Keells Group, Sri Lanka&#39s biggest conglomerate, sold off thier large plantation interests a few years back, ploughing the money into real estate and the leisure industry.

Youth on estates are also distracted by the new age of mobile phones, satellite television, three-wheelers, easy payment schemes and bikes which have raised their quality of life. Few see the need to lead a life of drudgery on the estates like their forebears.

Goonatillake from the Planters&#39 Association however says many young people go to Colombo in search of better jobs but end up working in small, dirty roadside restaurants or jewellery stores where they are forced to work long hours. "It&#39s definitely worse than life on the estates," he said.

Garment factories and the migrant worker industry which see thousands going abroad annually have taken workers away from the estates – mostly the women who find jobs in the Middle East and South-east Asia as housemaids.

Migrant worker remittances and the garments industry have taken over as the main foreign exchange earners outstripping tea. In 2006, Sri Lanka earned 0.8 billion US dollars from tea. But, compared to that, garment exports fetched 2.7 billion dollars and migrant worker remittances 2.1 billion dollars.

Interestingly, given their special role in all these sectors, women are seen to be the ones that keep the wheels of Sri Lanka&#39s economy turning.

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