For greener pastures

Published : Oct 13, 2001 00:00 IST

Tea plantations in Sri Lanka, which have traditionally depended on the skills of workers of Tamil origin, face an acute labour shortage as plantation youth of the new generation, better educated than their parents, seek to break free and explore options elsewhere.

NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN in Nuwara Eliya and Hatton

KAMALESWARAN had a job waiting for him as he turned 18 but he did not want to take it up. He was determined not to follow in the footsteps of his parents and grandparents. He wanted to break free from the only work that members of his family had done - work on the tea estates of Sri Lanka for which his family, like hundreds of thousands of others, have provided near-captive labour for over a hundred years.

Kamaleswaran's mother is a plucker in the Maskeliya tea estate in Hatton. After Nuwara Eliya, Hatton is the second most important tea industry-related centre in the island's central hills. She sets out barefoot each morning with a basket on her back, and only a plastic sheet for protection from the rain that pelts down every now and then. Ahead of her are eight hours of hard labour and an average daily wage of Rs.120, the equivalent of Indian Rs.75. His father retired from the same estate as a farm worker.

Armed only with a Grade 10, "O" level school leaving certificate, Kamaleswaran is now acquiring computer skills at a recently opened vocational training institute in Hatton town, but is prepared for any eventuality - except working on the estate. "I am looking for a job in the accounts stream. But I will take any other job that comes my way, as long as it is not on the tea estate," he says. His brother and sister have already broken away. Both are in Colombo, working as shop assistants.

There are 160 students at the Thondaman Vocational Training Centre, where Kamaleswaran is doing a diploma course in 'MS Office'. Candidates many more in number were turned away, as a flood of applications came in for its various programmes. These programmes involve training to be a car mechanic, a seamstress or a lathe worker. As is to be expected, most in demand is the six-month computer course.

A decade ago it was unthinkable for a young boy, or especially a young woman, to venture outside the tea estate on which they were born, to make a living. Today, teenage girls commute considerable distances to garment factories, quite happy to exchange the drudgery of plucking two leaves and a bud from the tea bushes for the monotony of sewing buttons on to shirts.

For the really daring, a job agency in Hatton town, riding on the recent boom in the number of Sri Lankans going to West Asian countries in search of employment, offers more lucrative opportunities. "We are the only manpower consultant in Hatton," declares owner Krishnan Jayaram with considerable pride. Every month, Jayaram gets about 50 applications from aspirants for placement as domestic servants, drivers, cooks, gardeners and cleaners in rich households across the oil belt. As a fresher a housemaid could earn as much as Rs.12,000 a month, four times the average wage on a tea estate.

"I manage to send between 10 and 15 people every month," says Jayaram. He claims to charge only the price of the ticket and for other formalities, such as providing passports and visas (job agents in Sri Lanka are known to charge upwards of Rs.1 lakh per applicant for similar placements) and says that the profit margin in the business is "small", especially considering the amount of "social service" he is doing. "I am doing these people better service than their trade unions," Jayaram says.

In a twisted sort of way, he might be right. A job that involves toiling barefoot in the slush is not attractive anymore to the vast majority of tea estate youth. The estate is still their home, and while they might register themselves with estate managements for work, this is purely a fallback option in case they do not find other employment.

First, though wage levels have risen over the years, in real terms the increase is marginal. Wages in the tea estates are also among the lowest in any sector of the Sri Lankan economy. But that is not half the story.

Tea estate workers, despite being the backbone of Sri Lanka's economy (the export of tea is one of its most important foreign exchange earners), constitute the most marginalised section of the country's labour force. The social stigma that was associated with the tea estate workers when they first came from the dry, southern districts of Tamil Nadu in the early part of the 19th century, still lingers.

Decades after the issue of the disenfranchisement of the estate Tamils was settled through the Sirima-Shastri pact, a large number of the estate workers are still trying to get Sri Lankan citizenship. Social indicators for the "Indian Tamil" ethnic community, under which category tea estate workers are classified, are among the poorest among all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. The reason is that successive governments ignored aspects of infrastructure and human resource development in the region.

It is not surprising then that the present generation of plantation youth have little attachment to the lush green tea estates that their parents and forefathers helped create. Instead, they view the plantations as a prison and yearn to get out, and this longing has grown with better access to education in the last 20 years. Previous generations had no choice but to become labourers. They grew up illiterate, as education was systematically denied them. Some estates had schools, but only up to the primary level. It was only from 1977 that high schools were introduced in the estates. Today these schools are seen as departure lounges to the world outside.

NIKLAS FERNANDO is a Grade 9 student at the Tamil Mahavidyalaya in Talawakelle, 30 km from Nuwara Eliya. His parents are both labourers on an estate, but he wants to become a teacher. "I will somehow complete my Grade 12, then go for a teacher's training course," he says, with quiet determination in his voice. Evidence of that determination lies in the commuting that he does to school every day from his home, nearly 20 km away.

Despite great poverty and hardship, parents too are striving to keep their children in school so that they do not end up like them. "For years we have been on these estates, right from my grandfather. In all this time we have been as poor as we are today, scrounging for money despite all the hard work we put in. I don't want my children to continue this," says 42-year-old V. Rajendran, a sundry worker. He is determined to see his two sons educated, and regrets that his daughter, when she was in Grade 9, had to drop out of school in order to supplement the family income.

"Education is the only way in which we can offer upward mobility to our children and bring them on a par with the other communities of Sri Lanka," says S. Mohanraj, head of the junior school at the Talawakelle Tamil Mahavidyalaya.

However, given the state of the educational infrastructure in the plantations, the social and economic conditions of the estate population resulting in high drop-out rates, and the overall political situation in Sri Lanka with its unresolved ethnic crisis, what schools are doing at the moment is to create a mass of youth who have minimum or less than minimum qualifications, but huge aspirations, and no avenues in which to take those aspirations.

The literacy rate in Sri Lanka is about 91 per cent. But in the estates, it is only 76.9 per cent. There are around 600 primary schools in the plantation districts, but only over a hundred secondary schools, of which less than half conduct "A" level classes. The education provided by these schools is far from the best. Failure rates at the "O" level examinations are high. In 1996, 83 per cent of the candidates failed in mathematics, 75 per cent in science, 81 per cent in English, and 55 per cent in social studies.

The schools face a chronic shortage of Tamil-speaking teachers (education in Sri Lanka is imparted in the respective mother tongues) as a consequence of years of lack of access to higher education to the community. The national teacher-student ratio is 1:22. In the plantation schools it is 1:45.

There are schools where science and mathematics are not taught at all because there are none to teach these subjects. Not surprisingly, a very low percentage of students make it to the "A" level. But the lack of a proper education or qualifications has not discouraged tea estate youth from wanting to strike out on their own.

"Anybody with even the minimum qualification is not prepared to work in the fields anymore. They might have to work as house-boys (domestic servants) or shop assistants, but even that is more acceptable to them than becoming a worker on the estate," says K. Meiyanathan, principal of the Thondaman Vocational Training Centre.

Those with better qualifications are not much luckier. Compared to the average number of 700 students who took the "A" level school leaving examinations in the 1990s, there were 1,600 students preparing for it in 2000, from the total of 3,500 enrolled in the courses leading up to the examinations. But the standards of education in the plantations are so pitiable that few students qualify for tertiary education. Of the 45,000 students who enrolled in Sri Lankan universities in 2000, a mere 0.5 per cent, that is 220 students, were from plantation-worker families.

A university degree is no guarantee of employment either. Together, Sri Lanka's three main minority communities constitute 25 per cent of its population but account for only 7 per cent of its government employees. Of this, Sri Lankan Tamils, that is ethnic Tamils from the north and the east, and Muslims form the majority because their educational standards are better than those of Indian Tamils. Sri Lanka has no affirmative action or equal opportunities programme to assist its minorities.

The only opening available to them in government (in realistic terms) is teaching. But the competition for teacher training is fierce. The Sripada Institute of Education located near Talawakelle caters to seven plantation districts, including three that are Sinhala-dominated. It offers a three-year diploma course to those who have cleared the "A" level examination. Each year, nearly 3,000 hopefuls, mainly those who did not get sufficient marks to make it to university, apply for the 220 seats available.

In such a situation, most tea estate youth can only dream of white-collar employment, and at best, land jobs that are only marginally better-paying than that of a plantation worker. Observers see this situation as constituting a powder-keg waiting to explode. There have been reports of infiltration by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam into the estates to recruit disgruntled youth to its separatist cause, even though the Sri Lankan Tamils whom the LTTE claims to represent, and Indian Tamils, have little in common except a language.

"There is an urgent need to open out more employment opportunities to the estate youth. More and more of them are getting educated but have no jobs. This could be another Jaffna in the making," predicted Mohanraj, headmaster of the Talawakelle school.

BUT if more and more estate-based youth were to get employed outside the plantations, who would toil to produce the tea which is Sri Lanka's flagship item of export and its top foreign exchange earner?

The plantation bosses have been mulling over the problem for some time. The situation has already begun to manifest itself in every plantation in terms of absenteeism of those who are registered as labourers, but who do not show up regularly. At the hint of a more lucrative daily-wage job being available in the nearest town, they stay away.

"More and more youth are demanding registration, but only 60 per cent of the registered workforce turns up for work. They go to work outside, but continue to get the benefits of registration, such as housing and medicare, from the management," says Vish Govindasamy, chief executive of the 12,000-hectare Wattawala Plantations, located mainly in Dickoya. The company has stopped planting in its low-country estates in southern Sri Lanka, where the labour shortage has become acute. It is feared that when the shortage really begins to hurt the plantation companies, they might resort to diversifying from tea to less labour-intensive cash crops, leading to large-scale retrenchment. That could only exacerbate the growing tensions on the estates.

There have been suggestions that if managements made the job of estate workers more attractive, and in line with the aspirations of the younger generations, it might pose a way out for both sides. "The work in a tea estate is by no means an unskilled job. Plucking, especially, is an art. If the labourers are treated like skilled workers, the job could become status-promoting," says Father Paul Casperz, who heads Satyodaya, a non-government organisation involved in welfare work among estate workers.

The Tea Research Institute of Sri Lanka (at St. Coombs, Talawakelle) is also applying itself to the problem. "We have to make work on the tea estate a technical profession, a job that the workers can take pride in, call themselves tea professionals," says Institute Director W.W.D. Modder.

It may sound radical, but Modder also suggests that managements should offer promotional avenues so that a worker can aspire to become at some point a tea executive in the company's office in Colombo. Right now, there is a dichotomy between management and labour that is also a reflection of ethnic divisions, with almost all workers being Tamils and all bosses being Sinhalese.

Modder believes that can be changed if a "positive attitude" is adopted. But, he warns, the time to start is now.

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