Empowering plantation community | Daily News

Empowering plantation community

Plantation workers are poised for a mass work stoppage if the Management Companies fail to meet their demand for a daily wage of Rs. 1000/. All politicians in the plantation sector, these days, are vying with each other to be the first to claim credit for delivering this bounty to their community. Ceylon Workers Congress Leader and former Minister Arumugam Thondaman on Monday requested all estate workers to join an indefinite strike from yesterday (04). According to him, the Plantation Management Company heads, whom he met, were not amenable to a Rs. 1000/ daily wage for the workers. They (Management Companies) also turned down a request by the Finance Ministry to grant interest free loans to the estate workers, he said.

In the past, in such instances, one could be certain that Thondaman’s grandfather Saumyamoorthy Thondaman would have led a massive Satyagraha running into days to win over the demands of his community. It appears, though, that the magic of the Thondaman name has lost its allure. Even in the ousted Government, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe denied him a Cabinet portfolio, the first time a Thondaman was snubbed in this fashion. The legendary political bargaining power of the Grand Old man of the Thottam is today conspicuous by its absence, where Thondaman junior is concerned.

Gone are the days when the plantation workers had their messiah to look up to. Thondaman Snr always delivered as promised and in return exacted the largesse for his community from the Government of the day guaranteeing they (workers) voted en-bloc to whichever political party he chooses to support. It was the vote of the plantations that tilted the scales in many a recent election. This was clearly seen in the Presidential Election of 1988. Had not Premadasa secured the support of Thondaman, Mrs. Bandaranaike would have been the victor at that poll. That was why no political leader was keen to rub him on the wrong side.

That was the time when Thondaman Snr wielded much clout with the Central Government and almost made it do his bidding towards the welfare of the plantation workers. This is why he had the pick of the Cabinet portfolios for himself under JRJ, Premadasa, D. B. Wijetunga and the Chandrika administrations.

Since his demise though the plantation community remained a neglected lot, with Thondaman Jnr only a pale shadow of the grand old man who strutted his plantation fiefdom like a colossus. Nay, the name no longer has any appeal in the plantations according to many observers with the Digambarams and the Vadivels taking over the mantle. Apparently, the estate community has seen through the farce. What they are receiving today is only lip service from the younger Thondaman who has made switching sides for the rewards and bounties, a fine art.

It is time the plantation community receives proper leadership who can air their grievances with conviction. It is only right that they be served well, given the contribution they make to the national economy. Let alone their wages, their living conditions are still in a primitive state, with large families huddled together in single room hovels that are called line rooms. Children in the plantations usually take after their parents and would not think of a world out of their limited existence. They hardly attend school and are struck by malnutrition. Estates also lack basic infrastructure and schools without facilities and devoid of the full quota of teachers. Alcoholism is also rampant among the plantation community, particularly given the drudgery of the work and ignorance about the ill effects.

There is therefore an urgent need to deliver this community from their current existence and get them absorbed into the general society. They should be provided with the necessary facilities and the wherewithal to redeem themselves from their backwardness. The demand for a daily wage of Rs. 1000/- is not unfair by all accounts. Nay, it could be considered chickenfeed by living standards in the city. This could barely be sufficient for food alone, even in the estates, where the community is used to living a spartan existence. One must also not forget that there will be a large number of sole breadwinners with large families who will have to make do with this pittance.

Hence, the Government should intervene and strike a bargain with the management companies with or without Thondaman’s involvement. The stock excuse by the Management Companies has always been that they could not afford high wages due to the slump in world tea prices. This excuse is often trotted out even when collective agreements come up for discussions. If things continue in the same vein then there will never be a wage hike in the foreseeable future which will place the estate workers in a severe plight. Hence the need for the powers that be to work out a formula where the plantation community will be able to at least secure a living wage to tide over their hardships.


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