The goose and the golden egg
Labour Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has accused the plantation industry of attempting to sabotage the 1,000 rupees a day wage award by resorting to court action. A pile of cases have been filed in the courts challenging the wages board award and when these will be determined is not yet clear. The case was called on Friday but not taken up at the time of writing and had later been postponed for Tuesday. Equally unclear is whether the challenge that has been mounted by regional plantation companies (RPCs), tea factory owners and other interested stakeholder will succeed or not. If it fails, will plantation workers get the promised thousand rupees with arrears? What will the employers do in such an event? The whole picture is murky with both sides having dug their heels in. The demand from the workers is very long standing and has seemingly been under negotiation forever. The industry response from the RPCs is that they just can’t afford to pay this wage and keep the estates viable.
Other noises too have been heard. Among the more ridiculous of these is that the government will take the estates back if the employers do not fall in line with the 1,000-rupee wage. Post land reforms, the big estates were not sold to the RPCs or anybody else. The Sri Lanka State, And hence the people, retains the ownership of these properties. What happened was that two state-owned entities, the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation (SLSPC) and the Janatha Estates Development Board (JEDB), were entrusted were entrusted with their management. Former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel was fond of often saying that “the magic is in the management.” Unfortunately where the nationalized plantations of this country were concerned, there was no “magic” in their management. The result was mounting losses and near-total disarray.
That was when post-1977, the decision to privatize the management of the plantations was taken. During President Premadasa’s tenure, the plantation assets were grouped into regions but, with an abundance of good sense, they were not allocated region-wise to what were termed the Regional Plantation Companies that took the management contracts. This was because of climatic factors like rainfall, or the lack thereof, that determine performance of plantations. Therefore the different RPCs were entrusted to manage a mix of estates in different climatic zones; and this logic has proved impeccable. There was, and there is, in this country strong opposition to divesting national assets to private interests and President Premadasa brilliantly overcame this hurdle. He did not call what was being done “privatization” but coined a new word “peoplization” to describe the process then underway. To top it all, he gilded the lily by giving the plantation workers a 10 percent stake in each of the RPC’s free of charge. He believed that this would give the workers a sense of ownership of their workplaces.
That did not work out quite as intended. The RPCs were listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange and their shares, like those of any other quoted company, were freely tradable. That resulted in most, if not all, workers selling their shares to ready buyers. While there were small windfalls for a large number of people, the proprietorial sense that President Premadasa was aiming at did not result. The plantation economy as most people know is highly dependent of climate and prices. As a result it is cyclical with frequent ups and downs. Editorialists, once upon a time, were fond of writing “tea needs sympathy while rubber has lost its bounce.” Right now, fortunately, the green leaf price of tea is around a remunerative 100-rupee level and rubber which was deep in the doldrums is picking up.
Tea is a particularly labour intensive industry with about 70 percent of the cost of production being the labour component particularly of harvesting. The employers tried as best as they could to persuade the unions to accept a productivity based wage model enabling the demanded Rs. 1,000 to be earned and even topped by bringing in more leaf than the prevailing norm. But the unions, some might say stubbornly, resisted this formula presented as a win-win proposal, There is no escaping the reality that worker productivity in our tea fields falls far short of those prevailing in other big tea producing countries like India and Kenya. But the highly unionized labour, conscious of the political muscle they command, have flatly refused to take this route. Their unions with the ability to deliver block votes at elections are able to effectively influence the various contenders as they have done time and again.
The cost of a wage increase to the employer is not only the basic wage. There are various other costs like EPF/ETF, holiday pay, gratuity, maternity benefits and more involved. Over and above that, a very large number of persons who do not work on the plantations live on them occupying estate housing and benefiting from the plantation-paid infrastructure. This builds up to a formidable figure which, according to the RPCs, the industry cannot afford. On the flip side of the coin are management expenses and fees payable to the controlling shareholder. This has sometimes been waived during lean times but not always. Mr. Arumugam Thondaman, at one round of negotiations with an RPC, once told the employer on the other other side of the table, “You pay your CEO a million rupees a month and grudge the worker 1,000-rupees a day.” But the employers say that management costs absorb only about 8% of the COP.
Given the current cost of living and prevailing wage rates outside the plantations, the demanded wage is obviously not unreasonable. Against that the worker too must contribute in productivity terms to ensure that his livelihood provider is viable. A dead goose cannot lay golden eggs.
It’s asset disclosures, stupid!
Saturday 27th May, 2023
SJB MP Eran Wickramaratne has called upon the former Presidents of Sri Lanka to make public their asset disclosures and thereby set an example to others. He has said there are two ex-Presidents in the House––Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena––and they should lead by example. One cannot but endorse his call, which was made during yesterday’s parliamentary debate on proposed amendments to the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act. The question however is whether the ex-Presidents, or other politicians for that matter, will ever want to disclose their assets truthfully, and run the risk of landing themselves in trouble in the process.
There are said to be lies, damned lies, and statistics. One can replace ‘statistics’ with ‘the declarations of assets and liabilities’ where Sri Lankan political leaders are concerned. It is nothing but naïve to expect our politicians, to whom deception is second nature, to be truthful when they declare their assets, most of which are ill-gotten, as is public knowledge. Truthful asset disclosures will serve as self-indictments, given the sheer amount of wealth they are believed to have amassed and stashed away in offshore accounts.
Power and wealth are conjoined twins in this country. Politicians who savour power for a few years are set for life. One may recall that Rs. 17.8 million was found at the President’s House in the immediate aftermath of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, last year. This alone is proof that the Sri Lankan Presidents are never short of cash. Heaps of money were reduced to ashes in some ruling party MPs’ houses which came under arson attacks, last year, according to media reports. Therefore, it defies comprehension why the MPs and former Presidents should be given pensions. This is something that the Opposition should take up if it is genuinely concerned about state funds.
Sri Lanka may be the only country where the state looks after failed leaders even in retirement. The current economic crisis is not of recent origin; the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration only worsened it and precipitated the country’s bankruptcy. The economy deteriorated for decades under successive governments, which were characterised by waste and corruption. The blame for the country’s bankruptcy should therefore be apportioned to all Presidents, both elected and appointed, since 1978, albeit to varying degrees. Instead of being made to pay for their sins against the country, they are looked after at the expense of the public and provided with houses, vehicles and security by the state, when they leave office. They have the wherewithal to look after themselves, and public funds must not be wasted. Will the Opposition take up this issue as well?
Babes in arms!
Friday 26th May, 2023
Our honourable MPs would have us believe that they are as innocent as unborn babies and butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Ali Sabry Raheem, who was nabbed by the Customs, on Tuesday, for trying to smuggle in more than 3.5 kilos of gold and 91 mobile phones, and fined Rs. 7.4 million, has sought to protest his innocence! Blaming one of his assistants for the botched smuggling attempt, he has claimed that he did not know what was inside his bags. Why should he try to insult the intelligence of the public in this manner? The people do not vote wisely, but they are not so stupid as to buy into Raheem’s claim.
MP Raheem voted against the government’s move to remove Public Utilities Commission Chairman Janaka Ratnayake, in Parliament, on Wednesday. He said he had done so because the government had not responded to his appeal for help to clear his name when he was nabbed at the BIA the previous day. But we think he has left something unsaid. No MP in the good books of government leaders is ever made to undergo Customs checks, much less taken into custody in the BIA VIP lounge, of all places.
One may recall that even senior Tigers were allowed to bring in loads and loads of undeclared goods into the country via the BIA, during the UNP-led UNF government (2001-2004) because the LTTE had struck a deal with that regime. Those terrorists who had attacked the BIA and caused massive losses to the tune of billions of rupees were even treated to BBQ dinners by the then airport manager. During the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, Mervyn of Kelaniya escorted a wanted drug lord called Kudu Lal through the BIA, and ensured that the latter emplaned to Dubai safely while the STF was looking for him.
The BIA being a place where even such dangerous criminals are given VVIP treatment thanks to the intervention of powerful politicians, a ruling party MP will never be nabbed by the Customs unless he or she has fallen out with the government. So, there is reason to believe that MP Raheem had planned to vote with the Opposition, on Wednesday; the government had got wind of it, and that is why he was left in the lurch.
MP Raheem cannot be the only politician involved in smuggling and other such illegal activities, and therefore, the need for thorough checks to be conducted on all those who use the BIA VIP lounge cannot be overstated. Entourages of government leaders are usually whisked past the Customs without any checks, we are told. This practice has to end forthwith.
There has been a severe erosion of public trust in Parliament, and the presence of lawbreakers among the MPs is one of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs. One wonders whether political parties handpick notorious characters such as smugglers, bootleggers, chain snatchers, cattle rustlers and killers to contest elections. The public votes for the lowest of the low in politics, and then takes to the streets, demanding a ‘system change’, and asking all 225 MPs to go home.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, as an Opposition MP, told the members of the current Parliament some home truths. In one of his speeches, he dwelt on anti-politics and the deterioration of parliamentary standards. In response to a call for all the MPs to be dumped into the Diyawanna lake, he jokingly said something to the effect that it would be a mistake to do so because even the waters of the Kelani Ganga would be polluted in such an eventuality.
Many a true word is said to be spoken in jest! He, as the President, is now in a position to take corrective action. There is no way the government could justify having within its ranks an MP fined for his involvement in a smuggling racket. There are many other racketeers in the incumbent regime and they, too, will have to be got rid of if public faith is to be restored in Parliament.
A sad day!
Thursday 25th May, 2023
The outcome of yesterday’s vote in Parliament came as no surprise. The government secured 123 votes for its resolution to oust Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL) Chairman Janaka Ratnayake. The Opposition could muster only 77 votes. The government can now install one of its stooges as the PUCSL head and have all its decisions rubber-stamped.
As for winning against the government, Ratnayake had the same chances as a badger engaged in a fight with a pack of mastiffs.
There will be no official with a backbone to oppose unconscionable power tariff increases hereafter, and it will be smooth sailing for the government. The power sector has become a metaphor for corruption in this country, and all governments go to any lengths to ensure that they can cut shady deals. So, the incumbent dispensation must be thinking that it will be able to do as it likes with the PUCSL as a mere appendage of it. Ruling party politicians and their crooked cronies must be on cloud nine.
The SLPP-UNP combine is obviously elated that it has demonstrated once again that it has a clear majority in Parliament. Some Opposition MPs were not present in the House at the time of voting, yesterday, according to media reports. Did they back the government by being absent and thereby ensuring that the Opposition would not be able to muster enough numbers to defeat the resolution?
Parliamentary majorities, however, are deceptive. A government can retain its parliamentary strength by engineering crossovers or entering into pacts with other political parties. It can also use ministerial posts to lure Opposition MPs. One may recall that the UNP-led Yahapalana government had a working majority in Parliament even after the SLFP’s breakaway in October 2018; the UNP even succeeded in scuttling the then President Maithripala Sirisena’s attempt to form a government with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. But the UNP suffered its worst-ever defeat at the general election that followed.
Government politicians may be able to enrich themselves further thanks to the outcome of yesterday’s vote in Parliament, but they cannot dupe the public into believing that it is politically strong, for it is gripped by a fear of elections.
Unholy broken promise
The government is drawing heavy flak from some prominent Buddhist monks, who insist that it has reneged on its promise to make funds available for the State Poson festival scheduled to be held at the Mihintale Raja Maha Vihara. Chief Incumbent of the historical temple, Ven. Valawahengunawewe Dhammarathana Thera has expressed his displeasure at the government’s failure to allocate money. He says he is left with no alternative but to beg for funds.
This problem would not have arisen if the government had made a policy decision to stop funding festivals. Now that it has undertaken to fund the Poson festival at Mihintale, it has to honour its pledge. Some ruling party politicians have said money has already been allocated, but Dhammarathana Thera has denied their claim.
All ceremonies that cause a severe stress on the public purse must be cancelled in view of the current economic crisis. The government should have called off the Independence Day celebrations (2023), saved funds and put them to a better use like purchasing essential drugs for the state-run hospitals. It also held the Republic Perahera in Kandy!
An outspoken critic of the government, Dhammarathana Thera, unlike most other monks, is known for his courage to tell the self-important political leaders who visit him some home truths. One wonders whether this is the reason why government assistance for his temple is not forthcoming.
It behoves the government to stop quarrelling with Dhammarathana Thera and take action to ensure that his grievances are redressed and the State Poson Festival will be held as scheduled, and, more importantly, decide against allocating funds for festivals, religious or otherwise, thereafter.
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