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Sri Lanka tea plantation workers demand wage hike

They have seen no increase in their already pitiful salary despite government officials, private sector employees getting one

Sri Lanka tea plantation workers demand wage hike

Anglican Father Marimuthu Shakthivel with tea plantation workers at a demonstration demanding higher wages in Colombo Oct. 10. ( photo)

Sri Lankan tea plantation workers have been demonstrating continuously since Sept. 27 in Colombo to demand a wage hike that has so far been refused by plantation companies.

Hundreds of protesters from all over Sri Lanka, including an Anglican priest, social activists and Indian-origin Tamils, are demanding a daily wage increase from 620 to 1,000 rupees (US$4-7).

They shouted "is this a collective agreement or a slavery agreement?" and "The tea we drink is the blood of the tea estate worker."

"My mother is a tea leaves plucker. My sister and I depend on her wage," said Suppaiah Nesaraja.

She gets a basic wage of 450 rupees and can make up to 620 rupees if she works for 18 days straight, Nesaraja said.

"Today, many of my relatives and neighbors including my mother are involved in the protest to demand a salary hike," Nesaraja said.

Sri Lanka is the world's fourth largest producer of tea, one of the country's biggest foreign exports, but families working on tea estates are so poor that some are homeless.

These people are almost all ethnic Tamils descended from those brought to Sri Lanka by the British in the 1820s to provide cheap labor on their tea estates. Around 52 percent of the tea plantation workers are women.

The daily wage of tea estate workers is determined by an agreement signed between trade unions and the Employers Federation of Ceylon. It is renewable once every two years. The last agreement expired on March 31, 2015 and new revisions were due last year.

John Senevirathna, minister of labor and trade union relations, said that the employers federation agreed to increase the daily wage to 730 rupees after several rounds of talks.

Anglican Father Marimuthu Shakthivel, who is coordinating the demonstration said they couldn't accept the minister's offer.

Plantation owners said they would increase the wage but drop the number of days worked per month. "That means poor tea workers get only 12 days per month to work in the estate and their salary will be only 8,760 rupees per month," said the priest.

"In the past, they received double payments when they worked on holidays. Are there any guarantees now for these payments?" asked Father Shakthivel.

The government has increased the salaries of officials and private sector employees have also seen a bump in cash flow but tea workers have seen no rise in 18 months, he said. 

"This is like a slavery agreement. We will continue our struggle until we get 1,000 rupees as a daily wage," Father Shakthivel said.

Activists say that there is a possibility of an agreement on Oct. 14 for tea plantation workers to get 730 rupees per day and that this hike may be renewed not once in two years but once in three years.

E. Thambaiah, a lawyer and joint secretary of the Hill Country Society Action Group, said the terms and conditions of such an agreement is unfair.

"If the agreement will be signed ignoring our protest and demand we shall resort to collective action against it," he said during a press conference at the Centre for Society and Religion in Colombo on Oct. 11.

"Wages can not be decided in terms of profit and loss accounts of the employers. Wages should be decided for work done and we are demanding for 1,000 per day," he said. "The 730 rupees proposal is very low, unreasonable and unjust," he said.

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