The on-going labour dispute has dealt a kidney punch to the tea industry which is said to be losing a whopping sum of Rs. 400 mn a week. Although trade unions call their protest a work-to-rule campaign, that it is only a euphemism for a ca'canny is only too obvious. At a time tea prices have shot up in the world market and there is a pressing need for Sri Lanka to 'make tea while the sun shines', they have resorted to a self-defeating course of action by reducing production willfully and preventing factory produce from reaching the Colombo tea auctions.
However, workers' demand for a wage hike cannot be rejected out of hand and paradoxically, their employers' woes too need to be taken into consideration. Tea production is labour intensive and the wage bill takes precedence over the rest of production costs on estates. As such, though there are price hikes from time to time in the world market, estate owners have to look at the overall picture in fixing wages, for what is given cannot be taken back.
The current plantation dispute which looks a problem of rupees and cents on the face of it, no doubt, has to be settled forthwith for the benefit of the industry, whose wellbeing is a sine qua non for the economic survival of the employee and the employers as well as tens of thousands of others indirectly employed. However, recurring labour trouble on estates is symptomatic of a chronic socio-political malaise, which persists in spite of short term economic remedies such as piecemeal wage hikes.
The plantation industry has reached a critical stage in its evolutionary process. When the British introduced tea, they had to import labour from India. The poor, so brought here as tea pluckers and rubber tappers were willing to be condemned to semi-slavery, as they did not have to die of starvation. Workers' rights were alien to them.
But, today, the plantation workers are somewhat liberated because of their unionized labour and collective political bargaining power thanks to universal franchise and the presence of powerful trade unions to represent them. Some trade union messiahs may have preferred to keep the estate workers in abject poverty so that they could be used only for voting and parting with membership fees but stiff competition from their rivals and the main political parties, these worthies have had to champion workers' rights. A host of other factors such a expansion of education, the emergence of labour laws, influence of the media, politics and access to the job market outside estates has resulted in an increase in the bargaining power of the plantation workers as never before. The British were lucky as tea plucking and rubber tapping were passed from parents to children as a vocation but today the plantation youth are voting with their feet looking for jobs in other parts of the country even under sweatshop conditions, especially in garment factories or in West Asia. Education has helped some of them secure even white collar jobs. (The same, it may be argued, is true of paddy farming which has failed to attract young blood.
Politically empowered, unionized, conscious of their rights and having alternative means of livelihood, estate workers have naturally struck back. They are sure to go on demanding more and more as they are aware that labour is the lifeblood of the plantation sector and they are indispensable. The industry as a whole must face this harsh reality without trying to wish it away. It has to work out a long term strategy aimed at better labour management. Discarding the threadbare shibboleth savouring of vestiges of imperial hubris and callousness, plantation owners should note, is a prerequisite for a modern approach to a complex problem. Turning a blind eye to political, economic and social vicissitudes and refusal to change with changing times mean inviting more trouble. There are sacrifices they themselves have to make such as pruning massive overheads.
The very survival of the plantation sector hinges on its ability to forge healthy employer-employee relations based on mutual trust and give-and-take. Estate trade unions, too, have a pivotal role to play in ensuring the wellbeing of their industry upon which depends their own future as well as that of their employers. They have to appreciate the real difficulties of their paymasters and use the bludgeon of trade union action sparingly and cautiously without plunging estates into utter chaos at the drop of a hat. They must be reasonable in making demands and must desist from resorting to disruptive activities like preventing tea reaching the auctions. That is nothing but sabotage which the police must deal with appropriately.
It is hoped that talks between the warring trade unions and plantation employers will reach fruition, as a short term yet urgent remedy, with both parties reaching middle ground without doing a Shylock. Unless they want to commit collective suicide on estates, they who are usually at daggers drawn at the negotiating table must take cognizance of the fact that they are engaged in a tug-of-war with the neck of the plantation industry caught in the rope. They ought to soften their positions and be flexible in negotiating a settlement.
It is imperative that the government step in immediately to facilitate a solution instead of being a mere onlooker. The country is the loser!