President Sirisena should mitigate plight of Sri Lankan plantation workers!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Today, every country aspires to be a big regional, if possible capitalist, leader so that world, especially the West, takes notice of the “development”. Development means huge profits which in turn means exploitation of illiterate, poor and working people, the regime helps the capitalist establishments make huge profits.
In fact, capitalist production relations got a shot with Sept-11 hoax, contributing to the fall of living conditions of working people and poor, globally. The situation is explosive in third world where land lords join the corporate lords to crush the workers and swindle more and more profits at their cost.
Unlike India, declaring a super power status along with UN veto as its goal and for that it continues to occupy Jammu Kashmir to claim to be a partner in global colonial system (GCS) under the leadership of European powers, Sri Lanka a relatively small economy with basket full of problems, does not openly make any such future declarations. But without making any tall futuristic claims, Colombo seems to be still moving toward Indian type crony capitalist mode by promoting big private companies for making huge profits by exploitation of masses and keeping the workers under check.
The government obviously backs exploitation of workers by the company owners and other corporate lords. After all, they invest money in order reap huge profits by all means and they grow richer and richer by using and exploiting workers and poor.
Sri Lankan tea exports and prices have fallen owing to a drop in demand in key markets, especially in the Middle East and Russia. Overall export earnings from tea fell by 700 million rupees in October 2015 to 16.8 billion rupees from the year before. The US-led military intervention in Iraq and Syria has cut exports to the Middle East and Russian demand has fallen because of trade sanctions imposed by the US and its allies.
Facing an export slump, the plantation companies have refused to increase wages, even though the collective agreement expired in March. With the support of President Maithripala Sirisena’s government and the trade unions, the companies are contemplating various schemes to extract greater workloads from workers.
Last month the management of Ingestre Estate at Dickoya in Sri Lanka’s central plantation district sacked seven workers on false charges and has refused to reinstate even today. The victimized workers are: Ganeshan Sivakumar, Ganeshan Puspanathan, Marimuthu Yohendran, Govinthan Lechumanan, Sangilimuthu Sangaran, Sivasamy Mahendran and Perumal Murugan.
The witch-hunt against the Ingestre workers began in July. They participated in a limited go-slow campaign called by the CWC in plantation areas demanding a 1,000-rupee daily wage, including allowances. The Planters’ Association rejected the demand, but the CWC called off the industrial action, using the August parliamentary elections as a pretext, promising to resume the campaign later.
The management’s decision came despite nearly 1,500 workers from six divisions of Ingestre Estate calling a strike on November 13 for two days, and organizing a sit-in-protest against the seven sackings. The management also called the police to the estate from the Norwood and Hatton stations to intimidate workers.
The management told the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) trade union leaders on November 19 they could only appeal to the estate owners, the Kelani Valley Plantation Company, in Colombo on November 30.
Interestingly, the union leaders have been bought by the managements to sabotage workers’ strikes. Earlier, the CWC Dickoya area leader Thangarajah Kishore denounced workers for going on strike and compelled them to halt the action, promising that a deal would be reached with the management to reinstate the victimized workers. After sabotaging the struggle to defend the workers, the CWC then asked workers to hope for mercy from the owners – the usual strategy.
Most of the Ingestre Estate workers are members of CWC, while the National Union of Workers (NUW) and Up-country People’s Front (UPF) also operate in the estate.
While the Ingestre workers continued the go-slow campaign, management provocatively refused to accept their plucked tea. When workers dumped the harvest near the manager’s bungalow, the seven workers, who were in the forefront of the go-slow campaign, were arrested on July 20 and remanded for one week. They were finally bailed out, on a 100,000-rupee personal surety each, at the Hatton magistrates court. The next hearing date for their charges was fixed for March 28 next year.
After the bailout, the management suspended the seven workers and started a so-called internal inquiry. More than 60 workers gave evidence, defending their colleagues and exposing the trumped-up charges, but the management arbitrarily sacked the workers on November 6.
The attack on the Ingestre workers is a clear demonstration of how the plantation companies, backed by the Lankan government, are ruthlessly seeking to suppress the resistance of workers in order to impose the burden of a global downturn in tea prices and demand.
These victimizations underscore a new turn by the plantation companies to use repressive methods against workers. There was a similar incident earlier this year. After workers at the Deeside division of the Glenugie estate, owned by Maskeliya Plantations, went on strike in February, against increased workloads management set up a provocation and had eight workers arrested on false charges of physically attacking a field supervisor.
When a magistrate bailed out the eight workers, the management began its own inquiry and sacked three workers and suspended four. The sacked workers were reinstated only after NUW leaders pressured them into offering an apology for offences they did not commit.
While accusing each other of cheating workers, the trade union leaders are working with the companies and the government behind the scenes to facilitate these attacks.
CWC leader Arumugam Thondaman was a minister in the government of previous President Mahinda Rajapakse. His union called the go-slow campaign in order to deflect growing opposition among workers over falling real wages and deteriorating living and social conditions. The other unions are condemning Thondaman for supposedly proposing an unrealistic demand in the first place.
The leaders of the NUW, UPF and another plantation union, the Democratic People’s Front (DPF), P. Digambaram, V. Radhakrishnan and Mano Ganeshan respectively, are ministers in the present government. They promised to seek wage rises after the August parliamentary election, but then casually denounced Thondaman for asking too much.
The unions have taken the side of the plantation companies and are acting as industrial police forces in opposing workers’ attempts to challenge their degrading conditions.
A dangerous situation is developing in the plantations. The companies adamantly refuse to give wage increases to workers. The trade unions are not talking about a wage increase. The company started to attack workers for campaigning for wage increases and no higher workloads.
Last month, the management reduced wages on some pretext. Earlier, if they worked on a Sunday, the company was liable to pay a wage equivalent to one and half days. Now, the management pays just a normal daily wage.
The corporate media are not reporting the victimization of the Estate workers. Marimuthu Yohendran, a victimized worker, commented: “After the company terminated our jobs, we informed Minister P. Digambaram and UPF leader V. Radhakrishnan. They promised to come to the estate to meet us but did not turn up.
Along with the aggravation of the crisis of the Srilankan crony capitalism parasitic capitalists with the backing of the TU leadership has for the moment succeeded in settling accounts at the expense of the estate workers who are most exploited category of the Sri Lankan workers. This is a serious crime and even government seems ot support it.
Sri Lankan government could consider pass a law to make salary/wages payments, perks, increments and promotions etc of private companies at par with government employees with sufficient freedoms. While government employees enjoy all freedoms and privileges, private employees and workers just look for the mercy of the management for pay and post hikes. Private companies and establishments do not have any procedures for regular pay hikes, increments, promotions and as such workers have to strike for their rights to make the management understand their problems and take remedial measures to help them.
President Sirisena, having given hopes for the people of Sri Lanka, including Tamil and other minorities, should mitigate the cruel plight of Sri Lankan plantation workers who cannot be expected to seek help from other countries, including India to make both ends meet.
A pathetic existence of Tamil minority community would not be in the best interest of Srilanka.