Plantation workers are the poorest segment, despite steady flow of tea dollars

Plantation workers are the poorest segment in the country despite tea being an export crop and heavy private sector involvement in its trade. Government divested ownership in plantation companies in the early 1990's which led to productivity gains and some improvement in living conditions of workers. But incidence of poverty in estates increased during the last few years according to Central Bank. Kumari, a mother of four returns home after the first session of plucking on the hilly slopes of Talawakelle. Before the second session starts in the afternoon, Kumari hastily prepares a meal for her family. Being the main breadwinner in an estate family is not easy says Kumari especially with four schooling kids. "My day begins at five o'clock in the morning. After sending my children to school I go for plucking. After work I have to cook lunch and collect firewood. Afterwards work in our vegetable plot," says Balakrishnan Kumari, Mattakelle Estate, Talawakelle Kumari says plucking earns her on average around Rs. 3,000 a month, Rs. 125 a day. However, the management says an average plucker earns around Rs. 300 a day if the yield is good. But she doesn't know what happens to the salary she earns, as at the end of every month, it's her husband who collects pay from the estate management.
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Attempts by the plantation management companies to get everyone to the pay table have also failed. "When it comes to wages the men still seem to think that 'That is my prerogative' and I go and collect the money and distribute it the way I want," says Dan Seevaratnam, Deputy Chairman, Kahawatta Plantations. "Because he thinks he is the more educated one. This has lead to misuse and abuse of the women's salary.
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We brought it as one of our tenets that we will handover the pay packet to women but there was a subtle resistance to this. They said 'look you don't worry about that.... I'm the husband and I know what to do'," Seevaratnam says. The Socio economic survey report published by the Central Bank says the estate sector records the highest per capita expenditure on alcohol beverages and tobacco products. Higher consumption of alcohol has increase abuse and violence across the plantation sector. "Money is wasted on drinks. We get beaten if we question," says Kumari. "They spend quite a bit of it (salary) in consuming liquor so definitely on the subsequent day he or she doesn’t report to work and it affects the productivity," pointed out Saman Edirisinghe, Group Manager, Mattakelle Estate. Management companies say ignorance among estate workers has led to hard earned money being wasted on alcohol. A recent study by an NGO found that about 80 percent of the households consume liquor. What is even more frightening is over 40 percent of women are addicted to liquor. "The survey says that between 40-50% of earned wages goes on alcoholism," says Seevaratnam. Lack of savings is forcing workers to generate extra income for day-to-day living expenses. According to the Department of Census and Statistics the highest level of poverty is in the estate sector. According to statistics around 30 percent of the population in estate areas is poor. Instead of making an effort to save, Murthi, Kumari's husband is clearing a 15 perch plot of land given by the estate to grow vegetables as an extra income. He says the income earned by Kumari is hardly sufficient to manage the family. "She earns around Rs. 2500 to Rs. 3000 a month. We have four children. It's not enough for food and schooling needs of our children," Karupiah Murthi Worker. He says he hopes to earn an extra fifty thousand Rs. 50,000 next year by selling potatoes. But how much of it Murthi would save, only he would know. However, they are lucky to own this little cottage instead of a 10 by 10 'line' room. This little cottage was built with the help of the estate management. "We have been able to change their traditional living systems -that are 'line rooms'. We have been giving them individual cottages and seven perch land and bank loans on a self help basis to put up their little cottages. In addition paid leave and medical facilities and transport for patients," says Saman Edirisinghe. First attraction when entering Kumari's little cottage is the electrical items on display. According to the consumer finance and socio economic survey report, there is a mark increase in access to television and radio in the estate sector. Access to television in the estate sector had doubled from 23 percent in 1997 to 55 percent last year. Even in line rooms elsewhere in the estate living conditions in general seem better than ten years ago. Management companies say since privatization of estates, housing, education and sanitation facilities have improved. "There has been a tremendous development in the quality of life in the workers of plantations. If you take the sector as a whole after privatization in 1994 there has been an increase in production. This has brought some prosperity to the workers. In the case of housing there has been tremendous improvement," says Seevaratnam. "In fairness to the community there has been a lot of self help as well where they have chipped in; the banks have chipped in; and plantation companies have chipped in," says Seevaratnam. Though there are signs of better quality of life that is not attractive enough for the younger generation to remain employed in the plantations. Many have already left as housemaids to Middle-eastern countries. Students who have done well in their academics are looking for white-collar jobs in the city. "I don't like estate jobs. I will try, try and try to get a government job," says Nagalingam Thibappriya, Mattakelle Estate. Despite tea being an export crop and heavy private sector involvement in its trade, the slow progress of living conditions in the plantations is driving out its greatest asset; its work force. -Charitha Fernando:
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