By Jayampathy Molligoda
At last week’s Colombo tea auction Bogawantalawa tea estate has recorded, for the second consecutive week, the highest price for its BOP grade realizing Rs 430 amongst “Western high grown” teas. Bogawantalawa tea estate is situated some 25 kilometres from Hatton, one of the busiest towns in the hill country. Bogawantalawa teas are now sought after by some of the most discerning customers worldwide.
Some of them include, Liptons, Van Rees UK, Orimi Russia, UWT, and Mitsui. It is gladdening to note from the Bogawantalawa estate check roll that 50 workers, mainly female tea pluckers of Bogawantalawa tea estate have received more than Rs 30,000 as the individual monthly salary in May this year. Further, this particular tea estate has also achieved 228 kilos per hectare yield in May, one of the highest productivity level recorded for a particular month.
Tea in Sri Lanka was one time the largest foreign exchange export earnings plantation crop, but according to various surveys carried out at that time revealed that families working on tea estates were among the nations’ poorest in terms of earnings as well as nutrition. Tea industry was one of the leading sector until mid- eighties when it was overtaken by garments, foreign employment income and now tourism. There have been wage negotiations every two years under the collective bargaining process between the estate workers’ unions and the plantation companies, and consequently daily wage rates of the estate workers increased by about 28% every two years.
Prior to the wage increase granted in April 2013, an average worker could earn only Rs 13,500 (without overtime, over kilo earnings and so on) and the husband and the wife both working could earn some Rs 27,000 monthly to support their families including school-aged children. At that time, when they were interviewed by NGOs operating at plantation level, the usual complaint was, “Life is difficult. We survive somehow; but we cannot find any other job.” The living conditions were not satisfactory although there have been a number of initiatives to improve housing, water and sanitation, electricity supply and so on for tea estate worker community.
The situation has now improved tremendously for estate workers as well as children of tea estate workers. The estate mangers have been conducting regular training and educational programmes covering household cash management, saving habits and prevention of alcoholism for their estate workers. The up country tea estates do not engage in the use of child labour and have a zero tolerance policy in this regard. Most of the estates have been striving to enhance the quality of life of the estate community and the villages around the estates.
The basic measure of the poverty is the size of poor population which falls underneath the poverty line. The most widely used measurement of the poverty is Head Count Ratio which simply indicates the proportion of poor population below the poverty line as a percentage of the total population. The Household Income and Expenditure (HIE) Survey has been the main data provider for calculating and determining both poverty and poverty lines of the country for over three decades and the Official Poverty Line (OPL) which is currently in use for measuring the poverty status of the country was also determined on the data collected by the HIES.
In 1990/91 the poverty headcount was 26.1% at national level and the estate sector was 20.5% and the rural sector was as high as 29.5%. By 2006/7, the national level head count for Sri Lanka has come down to 15.2% and further reduced to 8.9% in 2009/10 and the corresponding count for estate sector was 11.4% in 2009. The contribution by the estate sector to total poverty of the country is only 11.3% against the 82.1% contribution by the rural sector. As per latest statistics extracted with HIE survey undertaken in 2012/13, the poverty head count has come down further to 6.5%.
Estate mangers are now practising participatory style of management in day-to-day activities in developing the estates in consultation with the workers and allow them to earn decent monthly wages including productivity based incentives. Bogawantalawa estate continues to provide a wide range of facilities to estate workers which include: water supply & sanitation, housing with electricity, counseling, medical camps, sports activities and community forestry providing fuel-wood for heating and so on. Bogawantalawa tea estates’ sustainability is based on its promise that its long-term value creation for the stakeholders depends on the sustainable development of the estate land, resources and the community in which they operate. Towards that end, the company is striving to be self-sufficient in green energy to operate all tea factories through harnessing own hydro power potential within the estates.
The writer’s own view is that the tea industry, especially the up country tea estates are at the cross roads. The demand for traditional Ceylon tea is declining and buyer requirements/preferences are fast changing. As pointed by experts, the power lies with top global brands, food service chains, retailers and so on. The prices at the Colombo auctions are high and it is not sustainable. Therefore, it has now become necessary to have a tri partite approach among the major stakeholders, namely the trade unions/employees, the regional plantation companies and the Government of Sri Lanka and look at the industrial issues with a fresh and open mind in the best interest of the tea industry and its dependents, the community at large.