Sri Lanka’s tea plantations battle weather, wages and trade union action

Nov 23 (LBO) – Sri Lanka’s tea plantations are battling weather, wage hikes and unofficial trade union ‘go slows’ on estates that have already eaten into October crop production, the lowest since 1995. Workers want a daily wage package of 295 rupees, up from the current wage of 180 rupees a day. Employers say they can only afford a ten percent increase or 220 rupees a day.

Neither side has announced that talks have resumed, but Goonetileke says they expect discussions to begin shortly.

Tea production in October slumped to a low 21.2 million kilos, an 18 percent drop on last year and a 23 percent drop on the 27.7 million kilos turned out in September.

Strong rains and overcast conditions were the main reasons for the dismal performance, Asia Siyaka Commodity Brokers said in its weekly statement.

The sharpest drop came from Low Grown elevation estates, which fell 28 percent from 15.7 million kilos to 11.2 million kilos this year, while High Grown elevations dropped by a marginal five percent.

Production at all elevations for the ten months ended October this year, is trailing behind last year at 257.7 million kilos ten million kilos less or a three percent drop, Asia Siyaka said.

Low Growns are down two percent to 148 million kilos, High Growns are down four percent to 64 million kilos and mediums are down four percent to 43 million kilos.

Low grown teas contribute 58 percent of Sri Lanka’s national production total, high grown teas contribute 25 percent and mid grown elevation teas 17 percent.

Sri Lanka is among the world’s largest producers of black tea, sold under the famed Ceylon Tea label mainly to markets in the Middle East, Russia, Syria, Iran and Turkey.

Last year the island produced a record 317 million kilos of tea, but achieving the same levels will depend on weather picking up over the next few months and a speedy solution to ongoing wage talks, Malin Goonetileke, Secretary General of the Planters Association of Ceylon, told LBO.

Sri Lankan plantation companies are in talks with trade unions representing over 250,000 estate workers, for a wage increase that will be fixed for the next three years under a collective agreement.

The talks that began in October broke down last week, after unions and employers could not reach a compromise on the amount of the wage hike.

“There are go-slows on most upcountry estates,” Goonetileke said, though trade unions, led by the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) have not officially announced strike action.