The Sunday Leader

Estate Workers Demand Change

by Ranjith Gunawardena

  • Plantation workers request the government to initiate procedures for direct mail service
  • Despite prohibitions, child labour still continues
  • Estate workers seek solutions for discrimintaion, racism and many other issues

In the 19th century, the plantation sector in Sri Lanka was set up by the colonial rulers to meet the export market.

Initially, Sri Lanka only provided the land resources required for the plantations while the capital was supplied by the British who brought in Indian workers to cover the labour force. Since many local Singhalese were reluctant to withdraw from their traditional cultivations and work in these plantations, South Indian labourers were used in massive numbers to meet the labour demand in Sri Lankan plantations. Since then the plantation workers have been making an immense contribution to the national economy. And throughout the colonial era, the socio-political, economic, cultural and welfare needs of these plantation workers were looked after by the British estate owners.

Last month, the plantation workers of the Central Province requested the government to initiate a procedure that could allow the plantation workers to receive their mail directly to the workers lines. They have claimed that while the whole country is enjoying the home delivery facility of the postal service, the plantation is still deprived of such conveniences, which is unfair.

The failure of the Postal Department to set up a procedure to deliver mail directly to workers’ lines in the Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces can only be considered as an insult to the civil rights of these communities. Even today, mail addressed to plantation workers are delivered to the respective plantation offices. And in some occasions, these letters and parcels are held at these offices for days due to the negligence of the office staff.

According to the current procedure, the mail that is delivered to the plantation office is directed to the field officer, who distributes the mail at the parade hall. Sometimes when the workers are not present at the parade, their mail is cast aside without any further query. This has caused immense inconvenience to many plantation workers.

When a letter or a parcel is properly stamped, the Postal Department has an obligation to deliver them to the doorstep of the recipient. Unfortunately the plantation workers, who enjoy the same citizen standards as the rest of the country, are still deprived of such rights.

Thangawelu of Kandapola Elma Estate had recently visited the Kandapola Post Office to pick up a registered letter that had been sent to his name. But after reading the receipt of the registered letter, a clerk at the post office has asked Thangawelu whether there was anyone at the post office whom he knew. Even after confirming his identity by showing his ID, Thangawelu has been told by the clerk that he has to obtain a letter from a senior official at the estate to receive the letter.

It is pathetic how the Postal Department refuses to hand over these plantation workers their mail even after arriving at the Post Office, while they are delivering mail of these ‘estate officials’ to their doorsteps.

 

Child Labour In The Plantation Sector

The Plantation Sector in Sri Lanka is considered as the birthplace of the country’s mass child labour. Most of the workers in these plantations have made it a habit to give away their children to Estate Officials as servants. However, almost all the time, they are compelled to oblige the demands made by the officials who order them to send their children as servants. Most of the time, these children are below 10 years of age and their parents have little discretion over the matter.

The situation is sometimes worsened when these estate officials engage in supplying child servants to their ‘friends and relatives’. Many high-class urban families are still acquiring child labourers via these estate officials. They specifically prefer these children as they are heavily submissive as to whatever they are told to do.

There have been multiple occasions where estate workers have been threatened to be kicked out from work when they had refused to give away their children as servants. Although the Universal Declaration of Children has prohibited the use of child labour under any circumstances, it is surprising has to how the plantation sector has been ‘immune’ from these legal constraints. Hence the government has a strong duty towards ensuring the safety of these children in the plantation sector.

 

Cultural rights of plantation workers

The plantation community has their own cultural identity. Most of these cultural practices have been entwined with Hinduism. They have been practiced by these plantation workers for generations.

If the plantation community is in need of rain, they often make offerings to Mari Amman Kovil. Every year these kovils in the plantation sector conduct their own cultural activities. Most of these cultural activities show a close resemblance to South Indian culture. It can be seen from the musical instruments used for dance and drama items.

Last year, residents of Boralanda village had crashed into the annual ceremony of the Kandapola Boralanda Estate Kovil to disrupt the proceedings, triggering racial tension in the area. These villagers have made inappropriate jokes to young Tamil women who were taking part in the evening kovil parades.

Despite continuous requests made by the estate workers to allow them to continue their rituals without disruption, these villagers had continued to disrupt the ceremonies due to political backing.

In another occasion, a dispute between a group of Singhalese youths and estate workers had escalated into a fisticuff, resulting in the total disruption of the ceremony by the villagers who had been backed by the police. The Nuwara Eliya police had refused to even accept the complaint made by the Kovil organizing committee regarding the incident. Finally, the estate workers had been compelled to halt their religious ceremonies that had been carried out for generations. According to reports, the rising political tension on the plantation had also become a reason for these disruptions.

Pachchamuttu of Galahawatta is a prominent acrobat who has even been awarded with Presidential Honors. His ‘Kohomba Pot Dance’ has been admired by people throughout the country regardless of racial background. He has performed in various public functions including the Viharamahadevi Park, BMICH and his home town. He is well-known in the area as a friendly and pleasant person.

Pachchamuttu learned his acrobat skills since his childhood in the workers lines of Galahawatta. Unlike his peers, Pachchamuttu preferred his acrobatic skills to working in the estate. Unfortunately, he is still living with the aid given by Janasavi and Samurdhi welfare funds. Recently, the SLFP organizer of the area threatened to cancel Pachchamuttu’s Samurdhi aid since he received help from a Ceylon Labour Congress Provincial councillor to purchase some musical instruments for his practice. Pachchamuttu’s performance of a dance at a ceremony organized by this provincial councillor has provoked the wrath of this SLFP organizer.

 

Birth certificate issuance of estate workers

The lack of birth certificates issued to the estate workers have become a major problem for them when acquiring a National Identity Card. Their important documents such as Birth Certificate are held at the plantation office in order to obtain information for the EPF/ETF and pension payments. Although the offices already possess photocopies of these certificates, the officials have failed to give the originals back to the workers. Since these documents are held under the charge of the Estate Superintendents, the responsibility in case of misplacement should also be rested upon them.

During the racial riots in 1972, 1983 and 1987 most of the important documents of these estate workers were destroyed by Singhalese thugs. Pointing out the lack of information that is currently available on the plantation workers, an estate official said that this could even lead to another racial conflict in the near future. He said that the time has come for the government to change the regulations that have been imposed upon these estate workers who are of Indian origin. “We have seen the difficulties these workers have faced due to the problems in obtaining a NIC; most of the time they complain that their important documents are held at estate offices, but most of these important documents have been lost. Hence there must be some concession available for these people. Even hospital officials, who are unaware of Tamil language, have made funny remarks in these birth certificates. But unfortunately, even the union leaders do not prefer to urge the government to solve this problem” he said.

 

Discrimination faced by plantation workers

According to reports, most of the estate workers who visit labour offices situated around the country to obtain services are being constantly discriminated by the employees of these offices.

According to Ramasami, an estate worker in Ragala, whenever they visit the labour office to complain about their EPF delays, pension delays and other issues, they are constantly turned down by the labour office staff. “Recently I went to the Nuwara Eliya Labour office several days to complain about the delay of my pension. On the first day, the office assistant said that the clerk was not present; on the second day the clerk was still absent and on the third day, the assistant was absent. No one in the office offered to help me solve my issue. When I went to the Labour Congress Office in Nuwara Eliya to complain about this atrocity, even they ignored me. This is how the workers are being treated in the estate sector” he said.

 

Sports rights of estate workers

In a recent football tournament held in Nuwara Eliya, the football team of the Kandapola Court Lodge estate beat the Nuwara Eliya District Football Club. It was a memorable moment for the estate workers in the area. But in an unexpected tone, the organizers have refused to hand over the award to the winning team. It is shameful as to how these organizers have forgotten the basic ethics in sports as well as the true motive of organizing these sports events, which is to strengthen the relationships between communities. This has resulted in the refusal of all football event organizers in Nuwara Eliya to accept football teams that are comprised of estate workers.

 

Transport problems in the plantation sector

The lack of proper transport has also become a burning issue in the plantation sector. Since the public transport services in the plantation areas are extremely limited, most of these workers have been forced to walk for miles to reach their destinations. Due to the lack of public transport, private vehicles are still transporting people unlawfully by charging them high prices. Unfortunately, these workers have been compelled to rely on these methods since they have no other alternative.

The lack of proper road maintenance is said to be the main reason for the lack of buses running in these areas. Although these roads were maintained by the government prior to their privatization, at present the private companies that own these estates have neglected such infrastructural maintenance. Most of the roads in these areas have not been repaired since the colonial era. In the end, it is the innocent plantation workers who have been compelled to bear up all these inconveniences.

 

1 Comment for “Estate Workers Demand Change”

  1. Sarath

    I have been a Planter of the ‘old school’. Quite frankly, this is something that the Estate itself could organise. In my working life there had always been a a man employed to take mail and other items to the PD’s, SD’s and Conductors Bungalows and also mail to Workers in their own Line Rooms. I cannot see why this process could not be continued considering the long distances involved between the Estate Office and the Workers Line Rooms or their new Homes without too much additional cost. It does not need the Postman to do this Job which can be arduous enough especially in the Hill Country.

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