The Cup That Hardly Cheers

A poster at a recent protest demanding a Rs.1000 basic daily wage. With allegations of corruption creeping into the tea trade, one could easily identify with the slogan.

Kshama Ranawana and Aanya Wipulasena

The plantation sector in the country continues to take a beating, and it’s not merely because of the Rs. 1,000 per day wage hike demanded by the workers.

Counterpoint learns that political interference, incompetency, corrupt practices, shortage of human resources, restrictions placed by the State and inefficiency are acting as a stranglehold on the plantation sector despite privatization of most estates in 1992. The once thriving Tea industry, for which Sri Lanka has been known the world over, has now slipped to the fourth place amongst tea exporting countries.

According to several sources Counterpoint spoke to, while some of the plantations are well managed a vast number need to be overhauled if they are to be viable entities.

Two senior former Planters pointed out that most of the RPC’s are currently not being managed the way they ought to be, implementing proper agricultural practices thus making them unviable. Further it’s also evident that most of the RPC’s are top heavy & certain RPC’s are headed by inexperienced personnel who lack   professionalism. Lack of focused dedication in many aspects is the malignancy that afflicts the Industry, which once was a thriving profitable entity, they claimed. The estate superintendent being the “Man on the spot” must be role models and command the respect of the staff. Some tea estates have not seen fertilizer for a year. As well, adequate funds must be allocated to ensure roads, drains, housing etc. are maintained, they added.

“Politics must be wiped out of the tea trade,’ claims Navaratne Pilapitiya, a Tea Factory owner, who echoes the senior planters’ accusations of mismanagement.  “There should be at least four plucking rounds a month, whereas today, most allow the tea to be overgrown.   When it should be two leaves and a bud, the saying now is two feet and a bud!” he claims.

Previously it was compulsory that sound agricultural practices, with a strict schedule were adopted, prioritizing a proper bush management system to ensure that desired ground conditions are maintained.  This would prevent the growth of weeds which is damaging to the tea plant. Therefore, the use of weedicide would be minimal, the senior former Planters pointed out.  The controversy over Glysophate never occurred because it was used sparingly & periodically, essentially against weeds with Rhizome such as Cootch (Panicum repens) , Illuk Grass etc. and  not  blanket spraying for all weeds for it is a systemic weed-killer with long residual effect on the soil. It also kills or weakens the tea bush. However today, with lack of workers to carry out the daily basic agricultural practices & maintenance work on plantations, there apparently is an indiscriminate use of the weedicide, sources pointed out

Says S. Devadas,   Media Coordinator of the Ceylon Workers Congress, “Most are interested in profits and estates are not well-maintained.  There are some plantations where the weeds are taller than the tea bush.”

There was a time when tea plantations were immaculately maintained. But today’s plantations, are dotted with weeds and tea bushes that are not pruned or plucked in a timely manner.
There was a time when tea plantations were immaculately maintained. But today’s plantations, are dotted with weeds and tea bushes that are not pruned or plucked in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, the ban that was imposed on the use of glysophate has impacted negatively on the tea industry.  According to Sunil Poholiyadde, Chairman of the Planters Association of Ceylon, Japan, a major buyer of Sri Lankan tea has shown reluctance to buy our tea, as alternative weedicides used have been found to leave a residue. “My own products were affected, adds Pilapitiya, who claimed residue had been detected in some of his teas. With a large number of suppliers providing tea to his factory, it’s difficult to identify which ones are affected.

A tea broker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added “Compared to Sri Lanka, production in Kenya is very high. Sri Lanka tea is old, while Kenya’s is relatively new. They have also started export of orthodox tea. So, Sri Lanka has now started to lose out in the world market. Especially with the Glyphosate issue we lost buyers such as Japan. That issue was there for about two years. But when it was resolved, some buyers from Japan continued to buy from Kenya. “Sri Lanka needs to start replanting tea. Our tea is very old, and the best solution is to replant, and market Ceylon Tea more.”

The issue is further complicated, says Poholiyadde, with the restrictions placed by the State on the Regional Plantation Companies (RPC).  When plantations were privatised in 1992, the State did not divest itself completely. The expectation was that there would be a proper business model without government regulation so the industry could be turned around. Under the agreement, diversification is restricted and the industry is also facing the challenges of climate change and a shortage of manpower. “Today, neither side is honouring the spirit of the agreement”, he claims, while pointing out that companies cannot depend on tea alone and must diversify into other crops such as oil-palm.  “We are competing with new entrants to the tea industry, who have the edge of younger plants, virgin soil and cheaper labour.”  According to him successive Governments have continued to disrupt development plans of the RPC’s.  Nevertheless,  2,300 hectares of RPC land is under crop diversification where macadamia, pineapple, soursop, lemon, arecanut, oranges, papaya, avocado, passion fruit, pears, rambutan,  and vanilla and spices such as cloves, pepper, cardamom, and khaya, giant bamboo and other fuel-wood are being grown, he claims.

It is time the State looked at alternative models to re-energise the loss making State plantations, he says, adding that they are subsidized by the government to the tune of Rs. 1.5 billion a year. Government interference has, says Poholiyadde, caused tea production in RPC’s to drop  to 72.9 million kg, even though the yield per hectare improved to 1,138 kg in 2016, as compared to 1,021 kg per ha in 1992.  The lease document allows for change, he states, adding that RPCs must be given a free hand without interference to make changes, and carry out development programmes. The RPC’s have individual business plans according to crop mix, availability of human resources, location etc.to make them viable entities.

Setting up a Plantation Management Monitoring Agency is of paramount importance to monitor the progress of each Plantation entity, stress the retired Planters.  No stripping of assets should be permitted in order to derive unrealistic profits. This body is in place within the Ministry of Plantations but is dormant.  It must be made more pro-active. A due diligence study should be carried out & appropriate action instituted against those RPC’s who have not managed their RPC’s effectively & efficiently in accordance to the Indenture of Lease, they told Counterpoint.

“They also must investigate whether the required agricultural practices are carried out with proper inputs, capital expenditure has been spent on factory development, housing, replanting and infilling, on a systematic program & also determine whether such capital expenditures incurred are justifiable. It should also ensure that there are development & elucidations  programmes for executives and whether the assets of the plantations are maintained well.”, It is not just running the place on a profit, but ensuring the practices adopted are not detrimental’, they told Counterpoint.

There is no telling whether the leaves are plucked on time or left to mature.
There is no telling whether the leaves are plucked on time or left to mature.

Another issue facing the tea industry is adulteration claims Pilapitiya; other senior planters too agree. Coarse plucking methods are followed where the quality of tea drops but quantity increases.  Some plantations use Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), or sugar to blacken brown tea. At least 70% of the pluck must consist of the two leaves and a bud, or flavour and quality will be affected, according to the senior planters. Coarse leaf breaks easily; there is more stalk and fibre, which results in the tea becoming brown.  It is black tea that fetches a premium price.

Even though culprits have been raided, political influence  meant that no action was taken, said Pilapitiya, adding that licenses of those engaging in such activities should be cancelled, or at least suspended for a couple of months.  “Our national crop is affected.”

Sri Lankan teas are bought in bulk and are used mostly for its flavour for blending with teas from other countries. This has affected the “Ceylon Tea” identity, according to one source.

Sri Lanka should go for value added teas, instead of sending out bulk tea, he added.

The Sterling companies were in the practice of buying their own tea, which  helped increase their profits.

Meanwhile, Piliapitiya proposed that that the industry should be run by a stakeholder association including the Tea Small Holders, Planters and Tea Board if there is to be a turnaround in the industry.

And what of the estate workers demand for a higher daily wage?   Says Devadas, the collective agreement between Unions and Management, which increased the daily wage minimally from Rs. 500 to Rs. 700 will be in effect until 2021.

That was not the demand of the Estate workers, who are agitating for an increase of their daily basic wage to Rs. 1,000.  Most of the sources Counterpoint spoke to are in agreement that this demand should be met. “The Rs. 1,000 basic wage is a fair demand from the workers, but there are aspects we have to consider. Plantation companies find it hard to pay this amount because of production cost. Sri Lanka’s production cost is the highest in the world” says one.

The plantation workers cry for a Rs. 1000 daily basic wage has the support of a wide group of people across the country.
The plantation workers cry for a Rs. 1000 daily basic wage has the support of a wide group of people across the country.

Devadas agrees that one of the reasons for the younger folk to move away from plantation life is the low wages.  They are better educated today, and find that they can earn much higher salaries in other industries.  It also paves the way for them to get a further education, and lead a better life.

Twenty-year-old Ananda Kumara, was forced to remain on the estate as a tea plucker because he has to look after two younger sisters and a brother. His dream is to be a policeman. “We don’t get paid enough on the estate, so whenever I get the chance, I do other jobs like help in construction work. If I get a better job, I will leave this place.”

Sentiments echoed by 59-year-old tea plucker, N Raman, a father of four are the same view, “I don’t want my children to work on this estate. I always encourage them to find jobs in the town. These people do not pay us enough. I am old now so I can’t do anything else but to come to pluck tea. If I don’t, they will throw us away from the line room we are living. If that happens, we have no place to go. We have to work very hard- in the rain or the sun.”

Says Devadas, ‘It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that the rights of workers are protected. Some estates do not have a set day for payment of wages.

All in all, it is apparent that the management of the plantation industry, particularly tea which has been the pride of the country, and a major revenue earner, needs to be re-visited and a workable, long term solutions found if it is to gainfully compete in the world market once again.

Several attempts to reach the Minister of Plantations and Ministry and RPC officials, proved futile.

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