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.)
Port City Bill Requires Referendum
by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC
The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.
Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.
The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.
The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.
The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).
Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).
Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.
Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.
In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.
The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.
Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.
The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.
Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.
The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.
The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.
I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.
We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?
At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!
We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?
We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.
I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?
In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.
Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.
Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.
Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.
All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!
The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants
Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.
It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.
On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.
My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.
Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!
Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.
And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.
I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.
There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.
But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.
When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.
Come on, they are no babes!
On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.
It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.
Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.
The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.
The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.
I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.
Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!
Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!
Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.
The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.
They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.
Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.
My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.
For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.
In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’
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