by K. L. Gunaratne
With nearly 500,000 smallholders in total, the tea smallholder sector is a significant contributor to the production and output of Ceylon Tea in Sri Lanka, and across the globe. We are often called the ‘backbone’ of our tea industry, and with good reason.
Sixteen percent of Sri Lanka’s arable land belongs to the tea sector. Of this, tea smallholders operate in 60% of the total tea land and account for more than 70% of the total tea produced. According to the Tea Control Act, tea lands between 20 perches and 10 acres are considered “Tea Small Holdings” across the country.
I am a tea smallholder myself. My journey began in 1977 with a two-acre tea land. I now operate three small tea lands while simultaneously serving as the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Federation of Tea Smallholders. Running a smallholding over the past three decades (or more) has not been an easy feat. No matter how big or small your tea plot is, ensuring that the land is well managed, tea is correctly harvested, and the quality of Ceylon Tea is upheld are challenging standards to meet every day.
Currently, a great deal is being made about the tea industry and tea companies being in hot water over concerns on wages, productivity, output, and quality. As such we felt it was important to share lessons from a tea smallholder perspective to help refine best practices and discover a sustainable way forward. It is essential that the industry – as a collective – ensures a paradigm shift in the way we’ve been managing this sector. While it is true that the industry was introduced by the British in 1867, the challenges we face today are totally different from then, and there is no reason as to why our management practices should not evolve with the times.
Basic industry dynamics
Tea smallholder plantations are found commonly across the island. Most low-country tea comes from plantations in Ratnapura, Galle, Matara and Kalutara. Mid-country smallholdings are widespread across, Kegalle and Kandy. Up-Country tea comes from Nuwara Eliya and Uva.
A majority of tea smallholders are both managers and harvesters of their lands. Small tea plots are easy to manage, and if you own one, you and your family will likely tend it. The larger the tea plot, the more decentralised management becomes – quite similar to the basics of how the much larger tea companies function. However, unlike the big tea companies – widely known as Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) – smallholders are not bound by a ‘Collective Agreement’ when it comes to the matter of worker compensation. Sri Lanka’s Industrial Disputes Act of 1950 defines the ‘Collective Agreement’ as an agreement relating to the terms and condition of employment of workmen in any industry. Within the tea industry, this agreement mainly focuses on worker remuneration and is renegotiated every two years.
With wage negotiations approaching early next year, industry actors across the board seem to be at cross-roads on the best way forward. The only point on which there seems to be much agreement is that reform is needed and urgently. This is a battle fought every two years, and unfortunately, there are no winners; only losers. By contrast, smallholders like us who are not bound by such an agreement have the independence to make decisions we feel are best for our workers, the industry and the legacy of Ceylon Tea.
While we use the Collective Agreement as a benchmark for the rate of payment, we have one crucial advantage, which is that we have the freedom to decide on the model of payment. For us, the Collective Agreement is only a guideline. Our main focus is therefore in ensuring that we are able to offer workers a method of payment that is attractive, while still remaining sustainable as a business.
Lesson from tea smallholders
Here’s how we work: As a baseline, tea harvesters are paid a rate of Rs. 30 for every kilo they harvest. Some harvesters pluck up to an average of 30 kgs on a good day. A good day is when the weather, the soil and harvesting practices are all in our favour. Leaves on each tea bush are harvested on rotation every 7-10 days. This means that leaves from each bush are plucked at least three times a month. A tea plot needs more than just the expertise of tea harvesters to yield a successful output. Besides tea harvesters, we also have other fieldworkers who engage in manual labour oriented tasks like weeding, manuring and up-keeping estate infrastructure who are paid a daily wage of Rs. 1000. These fieldworkers work eight hours a day.
As illustrated above, for tea harvesters, our method of payment is far from an unrewarding, fixed daily wage model. Instead, each harvester is paid for the kilos of tea they yield – which is to say: a productivity linked model of remuneration.
Until the 2000s, like the RPCs, tea smallholders also paid harvesters and tea workers a daily wage. However, we found that this became a real challenge when trying to retain workers and maintain profitability, and so a collective decision was taken by tea smallholders to shift towards a productivity-linked wage, as we saw this to be far more efficient and effective for the industry.
Speaking from direct personal experience, the ability to remunerate tea harvesters based on output has been liberating for them and for myself. While this has helped me manage my tea lands better and yield higher output, it has also given me the time to venture into other areas of work I am passionate about. For instance, I was able to pursue my passion of setting up the National Pre-School Development Foundation; this foundation aims to train pre-school teachers in Early Childhood Development within plantation communities. For tea harvesters, moving out of a daily payment system has opened up a path for them to secure higher earnings while increasing mobility of labour – meaning that workers were freed up to actively pursue work on different smallholder plots in order to boost their earnings even further.
Over the past few years, tea harvesters who work on smallholder plots have evolved into entrepreneurs themselves. Driven by the need to improve efficiency and output, harvesters themselves have become ‘agents of change’. Management and production practices have become smarter, output-oriented and have resulted in improvements in the quality of the tea leaf itself.
A recent study by the International Labour Organisation confirms these observations which I have personally witnessed over the years as a smallholder, namely: that casual workers engaged in tea smallholdings usually earn a higher daily wage compared to the plantation workers and contribute towards more productive work (Future of work for Tea Smallholders in Sri Lanka, ILO, 2018). This is simply due to the fact that the people we contract to work on our plots are paid solely based on their productivity.
Over the years, although the tea smallholder sector has evolved to suit the times, it is unfortunate that the rest of our industry has been held back from progress by forcing the continuation of a basic wage system that does not prioritize or sufficiently reward productivity. RPCs continue to play an important role in our industry – particularly in terms of upholding the international image and reputation of Ceylon Tea through their commitments to securing international standards and certifications.
Hence it is essential that the RPCs are able to continue operations in a sustainable manner. A collapse in the RPC sector would create major risks to the entire industry’s reputation for the highest quality standards and its capacity for innovation – given that more recent advancements in mechanization, climate-friendly factories, use of drone technology and IT to optimize production and supply chain have only been made possible due to their investments. Such advancements can only be scaled down to provide benefits to tea smallholders once a path to implementation has been cleared by RPCs. Failure to facilitate this progress will ultimately jeopardize the sustainability of the entire industry.
Moreover, the first and most pressing solution to this dilemma is obvious to all parties. The wage model must be revised. Our experience as tea smallholders is clear proof of this fact and should not be lightly disregarded. We are all advocates of our tea, and what hurts one sector of our industry will ultimately impact all of us. A paradigm shift is necessary, and it can only start with a long-overdue update to the way in which, workers are paid.
(The author is the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Federation of Tea Small Holders. The Federation of Tea Small Holders is an industry body aimed at promoting the advancement and development of tea small holdings in the country. In 2018, tea small holders contributed to more than 70% of over the overall tea production in the country.)
Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation
By Jehan Perera
Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.
Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.
Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”
Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.
The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”
It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.
International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.
In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”
As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.
The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.
Album to celebrate 30 years
Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.
However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.
All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.
Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.
Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.
Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.
LET’S DO IT … in the new normal
The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)
Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.
But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.
Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.
Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.
However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.
And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.
Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.
“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”
The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.
“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”
Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.
In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.
Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.
Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!
Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.
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