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‘Sri Lankan tea’s current crisis only reinforces the value of productivity-linked wages’

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By Dr. Roshan Rajadurai

“An incentive is a bullet, a key: an often tiny object with astonishing power to change a situation”

– Economist, Steven Levitt

Almost 7 months from the Government’s initial decision to ban the import and use of synthetic fertilizers and as at the date of this publication, Sri Lanka’s entire agriculture and plantation economy is still frantically in search of any viable option to mitigate the threat of declining yields.

Without any prior planning or notice, our entire sector has been coerced into blindly participating in the most unscientific experiment ever attempted in Sri Lanka’s history. We are all left to now anticipate what the implications of an immediate, nation-wide halt to all established and essential best practices relating to plant nutrition, pest, fungus and weeds will be.

We are told that arrangements are being made to import organic fertilizer from various, untested sources, and agreements are minted to produce organic fertilizer locally, much akin to attempting to rebuild an airplane while it is still in flight. Nevertheless, the inconvenient truth remains. At present, all supplies of “organic” and inorganic fertilizer are in short supply.

Stocks which are available, have increased in price owing to both supply-demand dynamics, disrupted supply chains and unprecedented increases in landed costs. These escalating payments are making Sri Lankan tea’s already high cost of production (COP) even higher, which is placing Sri Lankan plantations under even further stress. This a few short months after an increase in worker wages was thrust through the Wages Board.

Sri Lankan tea’s strange new normal needs to be re-evaluated immediately

With the end of the year approaching, and the window for fertilizing crops closing, it appears that the industry will be locked into at least one – if not more – growth cycles absent basic nutrients of Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus, and with no ability to control pests and weeds. Without immediate solutions, the broad consensus among those with expertise is that we can start to see exponentially worse crop losses starting from the end of 2021, hitting approximately 40% by next year.

If RPCs were to have disregarded basic agronomic practices and norms in such a manner of their own volition, it would have been called criminal mismanagement. With agricultural best practices now being roundly ignored in favour of a largely undefined and unplanned strategy for transforming Sri Lanka into a nation with “100% organic agriculture”, this historic, and intentionally misinformed self-sabotage is being repackaged as visionary and progressive.

Meanwhile, the nation’s best agricultural experts are being ignored or in the case of Prof. Buddhi Marambe, sidelined and silenced, on the grounds that he simply stated scientific facts regarding the current agro-chemical ban and had been consistent in doing so, because he had previously spoken up against the previous Government’s disastrous decision to suspend glyphosate imports.

This was a policy which resulted in the rejection of Sri Lankan tea exports as a result of issues with Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs), and caused the permanent loss of extremely high value markets in Japan, and a similar escalation in costs; all without a single shred of scientific evidence being provided to justify the lasting damage caused. As a result, the Government of the time was compelled to backpedal on its decision, but not without irreversible damage being done for no apparent reason.

This “justification” highlights a dangerous trend of politicization of science. If the science does not agree with politics, then it now appears acceptable to simply dismiss the scientists, rather than engage with facts and ground realities.

A simple extrapolation shows a grim future for workers

Regardless of short-term political expediency, reality has a way of asserting itself. Spread across 14 districts, the tea industry alone provides direct employment to over 600,000 people engaged in cultivation and processing and indirect employment to a further 200,000 involved in the supply chain. The sector provides complete livelihood support for a resident population of one million in Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) and 450,000 Tea Smallholders with one million dependents, hence supporting a total population of nearly 2.5 million.

When considering both employment and livelihood generation, it is estimated that the industry sustains more than 10% of our national population and its net foreign exchange earnings are only second to the garment industry.

Even if “organic” fertilliser is made available, there are still serious concerns as to whether it can provide sufficient nutrients. Hence, it appears that the writing is on the wall. With insufficient nutrients as a result of the unplanned push for organic, we anticipate a series of cascading failures stemming from a collapse in productivity. No amount of rhetoric will be able to turn back the tide of negative sentiment against such developments.

If not land productivity, at least labour

Unlike the garment industry, where progressive incentive structures were allowed to flourish, in our industry, workers remain bound to an outdated colonial era daily wage model. As a result, unlike the dynamism of the apparel sector, Sri Lanka’s plantation sector is also weighed down with one of the lowest labour productivity rates in the world. The combination of low land and labour productivity will create a series of cascading failures.

The only measure that could at least temporarily mitigate this dynamic is the implementation of productivity linked wages. This is a model which has the support of all RPCs, and which was has been widely practiced with tremendous success by tea smallholders. While they have been implemented with ease in low-mid grown estates, it is only in the high-grown regions, where resistance to these models has been encountered.

Crucially, this resistance is not from workers who have experience with productivity linked wages, but rather with Trade Unions who would likely lose relevance if such models were implemented. The benefits for workers are immense. In addition to creating a potential monthly earnings per worker of between Rs. 37,000-Rs 62,000, under previous proposals advanced by RPCs.

This will also give workers flexi-hours, empowering them to choose when and how they work. Given the labour shortages prevalent across the entire tea industry, such a move would at long last incentivize workers effectively, and reward them for achieving their full individual potential, thereby significantly optimizing labour productivity.

However, without a scientific resolution to the fertilizer crisis, wage reforms can only serve as a stop gap measure. As land productivity drops, RPCs, state plantations and smallholders alike will be forced to reduce the amount of work offered, leading to a continuous diminution of worker earnings.

The few remaining workers in the plantation industry will have no choice but to try their luck in other lines of work, accelerating the ongoing migration of labour from the estate sector. It is unclear whether other economic sectors have the capacity to absorb such a large group of workers at once.

Already, we have seen multiple outbreaks of mob violence on estates, with the majority of such incidents being triggered by disputes over wages. Without proper solutions to these burning issues, worker wages will eventually be disrupted. Will the authorities take responsibility for what will follow?



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Business

StrEdge calls for SMART restructuring of businesses

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In a climate of unprecedented economic challenges, restructuring of businesses, from public enterprises to SMEs is critical, says the leadership of the StrEdge Group of Companies. In a press statement, StrEdge Group, which is a cluster of home-grown enterprises covering consultancy in Processes, People, Finance and Technology, notes that Business Process Reengineering (BPR), Human Resource Restructuring, Financial Restructuring and Automation are crucial not merely to support rebuilding the country but also from a long-term sustainability perspective.

“Multi-dimensional restructuring is a prudent and a tested method to come out of the difficult circumstances the entire country is facing right now.  This will create results in national interest if all can adopt SMART methodologies, from entrepreneurs to government hierarchy,” Group Director /CEO StrEdge Advisory, Sumedha Wijesekera notes in the press statement.

StrEdge which brings hands-on experience restructuring multiple businesses from corporates to SMEs, believes that a proper analysis of the existing banking finance structures of a business cannot be undermined. “The rising finance costs and all the macroeconomic constraints coupled with prevailing uncertainties have warranted restructures from both the business perspective as well as that of the bankers’,” observes Wijesekera.  From a business perspective, such restructuring would enable solutions for cash flow constraints, save bank interest cost, promote sustainable growth and more importantly, businesses to be future-ready to capture the market potential in the next upward curve of the economy, he says.

 From the bank’s perspective, restructuring helps to offer better structures with effective monitoring to match the business requirements, prevent NPLs and build up strong and more profitable relationships by being able to act as an advisor in this setting.

Furthermore, it is very important to revisit the costing of goods and services in any organisation in view of increased raw materials prices, exchange rates, finance cost, loss of sales, diminishing margins and loss of capacity. Introductions of dynamic price mechanisms for each product and service channel of today’s businesses, will give a lot of clarity for the leadership to manage them successfully.

 The StrEdge Group which has in depth experience in BPR covering multiple industries including both banks and non-banking financial institutions, believes that SMART restructuring will help organisations re-align their processes with present and future demands, says StrEdge Group Director, Janaka Epasinghe. The current demand to achieve more with less resources, has triggered this as a need, he adds.  “Eliminating waste, increasing the service levels, reduction in costs, increased visibility, internal and external customer satisfaction and future-readiness are few of the results that can be derived with this activity.  Furthermore, this will strengthen the sustainability of any organisation,” Epasinghe remarks.

 Current economic constraints have taken a huge toll on the human resource which is the heart of any organisation, compelling to revisit the HR pillar for sustainability and growth, observes Epasinghe who notes that if organisations are not in a position to compensate with economic benefits, it’s always important to bring other interventions to maintain productivity.

“The biggest bonus here is that even the workforce is ready to embrace changes despite the current challenging environment with a resilient mindset, which the leadership needs to capitalise on,” says the StrEdge Director.

 The foreign currency constraints and the lack of resources due to the brain drain in the IT industry have pushed certain organisations to successfully opt for less expensive technology solutions with the help from external and internal experts. “These interventions will give results within a shorter period of time with a very low budget.  Empowering the staff, cost reductions, visualisation, better service standards and increased profitability are some of the major benefits of these SMART technology interventions within a company,” observes StrEdge Tech Solutions Director/CEO, Udaya Samaradivakara. It will also help them to address multiple urgent needs from a people-process-finance and technology perspective, without waiting until times get better and this certainly will be a SMART option, notes Samaradivakara.

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Business

Oil demand forecasts aren’t as bullish as they seem

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Oil has become an attractive alternative fuel because gas prices have soared. But Europe is rapidly replenishing its natural gas stockpiles.Recent revisions to oil demand forecasts aren’t as bullish as they might appear. Don’t get too excited about prices going up just yet.

The International Energy Agency, the US Energy Information Administration and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries all updated their short-term outlooks in the past week. Two of them cut their demand estimates for both this year and next, with only the IEA breaking ranks to increase its forecasts. And it wasn’t just a minor tweak from the Paris-based agency. It revised oil demand higher for this year by a whopping 520,000 barrels a day, with most of that rolled forward into 2023 as well. On the face of it, that’s very bullish for oil.

But there are plenty of reasons to be cautious. First, let’s compare the actual outlooks from the three sets of analysts and put them in their historical context. The IEA’s revision sets its new demand number for 2022 roughly halfway between those of the other two agencies. It also brings its outlook pretty much back to where it saw things in March. So, although the IEA’s revision was big, it’s not out of line with others.

The other noticeable feature in the forecasts is that oil demand growth is disappearing fast, as the chart below illustrates. Global oil demand grew year on year by about 5 million barrels a day in the first quarter of the year — all three sources agree on that — but that increase is now evaporating.

That’s not entirely unexpected when you consider year on year comparisons. Oil demand at the start of 2021 was still adversely affected by the Covid pandemic, so a rebound at the beginning of this year was entirely reasonable. Then economic activity and travel eventually picked up later in 2021, so we would expect demand growth in the corresponding quarters of 2022 to ease.

-Bloomberg

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Business

Digital Marketing Association of Sri Lanka hosts its 1st AGM

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The Digital Marketing Association of Sri Lanka (DMASL), Sri Lanka’s national body of digital marketers hosted its 1st Annual General Meeting on the 4th of August 2022. Umair Wolid was ceremoniously inducted as the new President of DMASL for the year 2022/2023 at the event. Additionally, a new Executive Committee was also appointed during the course of the event.

The DMASL was formed in 2021 in an effort to drive the growth of the digital marketing industry. The association plays a pivotal role in recognizing, representing, and supporting Sri Lanka’s digital marketing professionals. Since its inception, the DMASL has implemented professional standards, ethical guidelines and ensured best practices for Sri Lanka’s digital marketing industry.

The newly elected President of the DMASL commented on the event: “I am truly honoured and grateful to have been selected as President of the DMASL. I look forward to working with the entire digital marketing fraternity to help uplift the digital marketing industry in Sri Lanka. The DMASL was created as a platform for individuals to expand their knowledge and provide guidance on running digital businesses in an ethical manner. I look forward to the upcoming year and all the opportunities and challenges it will bring”.

The newly elected EXCO committee for the year 2022/23 includes; Kabeer Rafaideen, Muhammed Gazzaly, Niranka Perera, Rajitha Dahanayake, Jaque Perera, Prasad Perera, Udara Dharmasena, Lalinda Ariyaratna, Infas Iqbal, Amitha Amarasinghe, Sanjini Munaweera, Umair Wolid, Gayathri Seneviratne, Arjun Jeger, Shalendra Mendis and Shehan Selvanayagam.

Over the next year, the DMASL is looking to improve upon its previous efforts and continue implementing training sessions, knowledge sharing, and networking activities which will bring together different sectors in the industry.. The association will also be looking into integration of digital marketing into businesses, as it is an important element in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. Another key area of focus for the DMASL is working in tandem with selected Government Organisations to help strategize Digital firsts and Digital marketing driven projects.

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