Tuesday, 17 September 2002  
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RPCs should also take share of blame- Arumugam Thondaman

Arumugam Thondaman

By Ravi Ladduwahetty

"If senior executives of the plantation companies could get six figure salaries and run around in Turbo Intercooler Pajeros, plantation workers should also get a higher wage to meet the rising cost- of-living, Ceylon Workers' Congress leader and Minister of Housing and Plantation Infrastructure, Arumugam Thondaman told the Daily News in an interview on Saturday prior to emplaning for India. Commenting on the viability of the plantation companies in the aftermath of the recent wage increase, he said:" It is the companies which should be responsible for the management and marketing. The workers are responsible for only the plucking. The Regional Plantation Companies should also take a fair share of the blame for the shortcomings in the industry."

The interview:

Q: It has been a matter of Government Policy that the estate wages has been a matter for negotiations between the trade unions and the Employers' Federation. How is it that you are involved in the negotiations as a Cabinet Minister giving it a political twist?

A: No. This is not so. Before I became a Cabinet Minister and a Member of Parliament, I am basically a trade unionist. I am the General Secretary of the Ceylon Workers Congress, which is the largest estate trade union. So, the first hat is as the General Secretary of the CWC before my role as a Member of Parliament and as a member of the Cabinet of Ministers.

Q: Do you think that it is moral to interfere with the negotiations being in the Cabinet, which is a conflict of interest with collective responsibility?

A: Personally, I do not think that there is a conflict of interest between the collective responsibility as a member of the Cabinet of Ministers. As I told you, my gaining entry into Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers is due to the CWC's strength as a powerful plantation trade union and it is for that reason that the CWC became a political party.

This will continue. For me, it is the trade union interests before the interests as a Cabinet Minister. I feel so as my entry into Parliament and the Cabinet has been due to the mandate given by the estate trade unions. It is from that rudimentary perspective that I go for the negotiations representing the trade unions.

Q: News reports quoted Chairman of the Planters Association of Sri Lanka, Mahendra Amerasuriya as having said that of the 21 of the 23 Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) only three Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) could afford the increase and yet operate at a profit. (The other two-Kurunegala Plantations and Chilaw Plantations have only coconut and these do not have active CWC members in them). Only another five are said to break even. All others would run at a loss. How do you think that the plantation companies could afford the increase?

A: If the managements of the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) are unable to run the companies viably at a profit, then, why don't we divide them among the workers and run them as tea small holdings? Then, the workers will be looking after the management aspects of them as well. This is the only alternative if they cannot run them at a profit. We are ready to do that even right now if it comes to that.

Q: It is said that the management fees of the 21 Regional Plantation Companies is well under a Rs. 1 billion while the estate wages without the gratuity component is over an additional Rs. 1.7 billion. Do you think that this would kill the industry?

A: The recent wage increase is not unreasonable as the wage increase is tied to productivity. It is important that the workers also have to survive today. We are not asking for any extras or luxuries. It is for mere survival. On the other hand, when there are estate superintendents, CEOs and Directors getting five figure salaries and running about in turbo inter-cooler Pajeroes, what is wrong in these poor labourers getting a paltry Rs. 147 per day ?

Q: Granted that Rs. 147 per day is still very small. However, they have got a 25 percent increase, which is ahead of the industrial employees in Colombo?

A: I am not going on the basis of 25 percent, 50 percent and 75 percent and other statistics. How can a person survive on today's rising cost-of-living? There were people who claimed to be estate union leaders who could get the estate workers Rs. 180 per day. However, we wanted the industry also to survive. That is why we were willing to settle for Rs. 147.

Q: Are you happy that you got Rs. 147 when you asked for Rs. 151?

A: I would have been happier if we got the original Rs. 151. On the other hand, we took into account the interests of the industry.

Q: Now that increase is going to be effective from July 1 this year, how do you expect the industry to survive in the second half of 2002?

A: The tea industry is doing well at present. However, there are malpractices such as the duplication of management fees. As Managing Agents, they draw their salaries from more than one board. If the duplications and these malpractices are corrected, then the industries should be able to survive well.

Q: So, do you attribute the poor performance of these companies due to bad management and not the wage increases?

A: It is certainly not based on the wages which have been calculated on the production potential and all that.

Q: How do you see the viability of the tea industry with the wage increase?

A: The industry should be able to survive well. With the increase in the wages, their commitment will also increase to step up production and therefore, productivity will also go up due to the workers being encouraged due to the incentives for production increases. This will ensure the survival of the plantation companies.

The basic wage is Rs. 121 plus Rs. 14 for the Price Share Supplement (PSS) and the additional Rs. 12 for the attendance incentive. This will mean that there will be more participation by the workers. There is also another increase if they have a higher output and which is based on the net sales averages. This means that they will get an extra payment for extra kilos of tea plucked.

Q: While Sri Lanka is unable to get higher prices for tea in international bulk teas and the production of tea in Kenya recovering following persistent droughts which drastically affected the tea industry, how do you see the industry performing?

A: It is up to these plantation companies to perform to meet the backdrop. It is up to them to bring in the new technology and develop their marketing strategies. It is not the worker who is running the show. He is only plucking the tea. It is up to the plantation companies to see that their marketing programs are planned. They too should take share of blame.

Q: What is your membership strength? (a) in the CWC and (b) all plantation unions?

A: The CWC strength is nearly 1.5 million. I am not personally aware of the membership strength of the other unions.

Q: According to an independent, indepth investigation which was done by me and published in April 1996, the total CWC strength in the 23 companies was well less than 80,000 despite the proclamation of the CWC of a million vote base to all Governments since 1978. Your comments?

A: Membership does not necessarily mean that all of them are subscription paying members. For instance, there could be a father of a family who has paid subscriptions and gained membership. But we look after the interests of the mother and children as well. Membership strength in this instance is determined by the people who receive the benefit of the services.

Q: It is said that all coalition partners of Governments under the present Proportional Representation system holds Governments to ransom due to their vote bases. It has been alleged that the CWC has made political capital due to its vote base and gets away with impunity with any demand which meant that the CWC has maintained a consistent Cabinet portfolio from 1978. Your comments?

A: If we did that, we could have given all our people all luxury. There were 4500 teachers who have been shot. We have not even been given compensation for that. Some of our people have still not got citizenship. You must pose that question to the people who make these allegations.

Q: What is your long-term strategy for the plantation worker and the Thottam who are socially and economically deprived?

A: We are basically trying to uplift the living conditions of the estate worker. We are thankful to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for having given us the housing portfolio in the Cabinet. We are also lagging behind in the infrastructure, education and health aspects of the plantation areas. Most of the youth are getting away from the plantation areas and seeking employment in residences in the metropolitan areas as domestic servants, hotel sector and other low paid employment.

This is because the plantation areas are not attractive and there is no other alternative. We are also conscious of the fact. They have neither wealth nor education. We have commenced a Vocational Training Centre in Hatton. We are also conscious of the poor health conditions and are negotiating with India for a medical hospital in the plantation areas which is likely to be at Nuwara Eliya. We are short of 4500 teachers and you can imagine the standard of education. Plantation youth entering universities is very poor.

Q: It is said that plantation housing is one of the main problems associated with the estate labour. What have you done to alleviate it?

A: We have started a pilot project at Lindula and Dickoya. We will be changing the entire living conditions of the estate worker.

In contrast to the line rooms, we have come up with a design an upstair house with a hall downstairs and two rooms upstairs. There will be attached toilet and kitchen. This is at the construction stage and we will see how viable the project is. This will be on a half grant and half loan scheme.

HNB-Pathum Udanaya2002

Crescat Development Ltd.



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