To draw workers back

Published : Oct 13, 2001 00:00 IST

On efforts to stem the flow of workers out of the Sri Lankan tea industry.

THE Sri Lankan economy relies heavily on agricultural exports, which overall earned $947 million in 1999: this accounted for more than 20 per cent of the country's foreign exchange earnings. The share from tea alone was $621 million, or 65 per cent. The imports needed for tea production are less than for the other production-for-export sectors such as garments, and therefore made-tea exports are Sri Lanka's highest net foreign exchange earner. For this reason, profits from tea will be the last to be affected by any impending global recession.

Tea is grown in estates (250 to 400 hectares each, in the high, mid and low elevations of the island) and in small holdings (0.4 to 20 ha each, most of them in the mid and low elevations).

Large resident Tamil communities, consisting of the descendants of landless south Indians brought over by the British colonial government to work in the coffee and tea plantations from the 1840s onwards, have been the mainstay of the estates in the central hills for generations. In the low country, estate workers are an equal mix of these so-called 'estate Tamils' and Sinhala villagers. The small holdings are mostly owned and worked on by Sinhala family units, usually assisted by hired workers.

The labour-intensive tea industry, which contributes so much to the Sri Lankan economy, is totally dependent on these estate and smallholder workers drawn from the two Sri Lankan ethnic groups.

One of the main challenges facing the industry is out-migration and chronic absenteeism of registered, resident estate workers, and a general aversion to plantation labour in the villages, owing to the aspirations of a newly-educated generation for better conditions and a more fulfilling life outside the tea sector.

The problem has worsened since the early 1990s, and several plantation companies and larger small holdings, first in the low country and parts of the mid country, but now also in the up country, are unable to get enough field and factory workers. The overall workforce in the estate sector is said to have diminished by about 25 per cent over the last decade (despite labour wages increasing by about 140 per cent in the same period). As a result, basic field operations have often to be curtailed. The present trends are likely to continue causing the tea industry to suffer increasingly from a deficit of workers. Given the country's reliance on tea exports, this is a matter of immediate national concern.

An increasingly common phenomenon is the commuting, or 'bussing', of tea workers, including those who are registered residents of estates, to tea or off-tea labour for the highest bidder.

A more permanent out-migration is also becoming common. The reasons are primarily a quest for better wages and perquisites in blue or white-collar work in other industries or overseas, but also better secondary and tertiary educational opportunities, better access to child and medical care, more off-work time and amenities for leisure, and self-esteem, dignity and social acceptance. The first step therefore in reducing out-migration, and even reversing the flow, is to seek means of raising the living, housing and working conditions of tea workers to a level where their expectations and aspirations have a reasonable chance of being fulfilled.

The viability of the industry depends on the availability of skilled and semi-skilled field and factory workers in sufficient numbers, in addition to trained supervisory and management personnel of high calibre. The looming worker-shortage crisis has shown the need for nothing less than a tea profession, with vertical mobility within it, from the lowliest field position to the highest executive one, based on merit and performance, and not on social considerations or accidents of birth. The tea industry will continue to thrive only if successive generations of Sri Lankans, whatever their ethnicity or social origins, are attracted to it at different levels because they are convinced that they can make for themselves a satisfying and profitable career in it, with no bar to advancement if they prove themselves. Working in the tea industry, which is generally recognised as the life-blood of the nation, can also, arguably, foster and reinforce feelings of patriotism and national pride.

A well-entrenched and recognised tea profession will have the potential to be a sociological and productivity model for the nation. Integrating as it does rural and urban centres of activity, the tea industry can have a counterbalancing effect on the inner-city excesses, which are the hallmark of industrialisation and urbanisation. One of the best arrangements for a modern, agricultural country must surely be extensive rural belts of agrarian production, as provided by our tea lands and factories, with industrious and contented worker communities. This model is possible if tea communities are enabled to attain a good and satisfying quality of life.

The relevant Ministries and government agencies such as the Tea Small Holder Development Authority (TSHDA), and privatised plantation management companies (PMCs), have been formulating and applying strategies in order to ensure that the out-turn of tea workers, and their competence are maintained at the required levels.

The Ministry of Plantation Industries implements three projects to improve the working and living conditions of estate and smallholder communities.

The Plantations Reform Project channels loans from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to privatised plantations for a range of agricultural, production and training activities, and for welfare measures that include worker housing and services.

The Tea Development Project, also assisted by the ADB, provides similar support and funding to the small holdings, and private tea estates for worker housing and for facilities for workers in private tea factories.

The Plantation Development Support Programme, assisted by the governments of Norway and the Netherlands, works through the government's Plantation Housing and Social Welfare Trust in which the PMCs and the trade unions also have a prominent role. The Trust has set up about 325 housing cooperative societies for workers on privatised estates for self-help and participatory development of welfare facilities, such as housing, water supply, sanitation and health, child care and social services. For instance, the traditional line rooms are being replaced by individual cottages, and worker families become partners in construction and maintenance of the housing and other facilities.

THE Ministry of Estate Infrastructure and Livestock Development has a programme for providing single or twin-cottage units on 15-20 year loans to workers without the usual guarantees. The government is involved in integrating estate hospitals into the national health system in order to ensure the provision of qualified staff and adequate drugs. Estate schools will also be upgraded and assimilated into the national education system.

The agency of the Ministry of Plantation Industries, the TSHDA, has instituted a successful Tea Shakthi programme which arranges special insurance, savings and investment schemes and pension benefits for tea smallholders. This programme has also initiated a radio station for the benefit of farmers, the first agricultural radio station in the country. Fertilizer production facilities have also been provided.

There are already welcome signs of a change in the mind-set in the higher reaches of an industry where capital and labour, as well as land, are so inextricably inter-twined. The PMCs recognise that contented and motivated workers are crucial for improving the productivity and profitability of the estates. Revitalised estate managements are attempting to prevent out-migration by investing in better worker housing and welfare amenities. Many corporate sector and private factories have introduced rest-rooms for their workers, with facilities for relaxation such as piped music, games and television.

Partnerships are being forged on the anvil of necessity, and a future characterised by a flatter working-profile, with a seamless continuum of interests binding management and labour, can already be discerned.

Total mechanisation of a highly labour-intensive production system is obviously impossible. However, even partial mechanisation of field operations would reduce costs, improve land and worker productivity, reduce drudgery and boost the morale of workers by giving them social status as skilled, machine operators. This is what the Tea Research Institute (TRI) of Sri Lanka is aiming for.

In addition, time-and-motion and ergonomic studies have been initiated by the TRI for devising ways to ensure that manual as well as mechanised tasks, both in field and factory, are biomechanically sound. This will heighten physical and mental well-being and, what has come to be called worker wellness.

Switching from a manual task requiring little skill to the operation of a piece of machinery, however simple, is not easy. Sensitivity and a gradual approach by trainers and managers are vital in the process of introducing mechanised systems. Machines will not replace tea workers but utilise them better, whenever and wherever workers are in short supply. Production and productivity will therefore be maximised, and hopefully benefits will be shared for the good of all.

The manual uprooting of old tea bushes takes more than 600 mandays per hectare. The use of a bulldozer or back hoe can reduce this labour requirement by more than 75 per cent, and the cost by about 25 per cent. Small hand-held, motorised augers are commercially available for the drilling of planting holes. However, modifications are necessary to enable their use in hard, gravelly or stony soils.

Apart from brush cutters, hand-held pruning machines are now being used for pruning tea bushes. This is five times more efficient than manual pruning and the labour requirement is reduced by 70 to 80 per cent. The TRI has patented a hand-held pruning machine suited to Sri Lankan conditions.

IN order to maintain the country's current levels of made-tea production (305.8 million kg in 2000), approximately 1,200 million kg of green leaf would need to be harvested a year (during 300 working days), or 4 million kg a working day. Assuming a plucker intake of 20 kg a day, approximately 200,000 pluckers are required every day, which makes harvesting the most labour-intensive field operation. It is also the costliest, making up 30-40 per cent of total production costs.

The TRI has been carrying out research on mechanical harvesting since the late 1980s. One of its patents, the TRI selective tea harvester (the TSTH), won a Gold Medal at the 28th International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva, in 2000. It gives a 50 to 100 per cent increase in plucker intake, and a worker trained to use it earns considerably more than a manual plucker. At the same time, growers have recorded savings in plucking costs of more than Rs.2 a kg of made tea.

The TSTH has the same selectivity as manual harvesting, being easily raised and lowered on the plucking table for selecting only the desired two or three leaves and the bud. Thus, apart from an increased intake, the plucker can sustain a good leaf standard. The shoots harvested do not get bruised, unlike manually harvested shoots, and quality is ensured.

A newly-patented nylon plucking basket in a light-weight frame, developed by the TRI and an up-country plantation, can be adjusted to suit the body structure of individual pluckers. It is carried on the shoulders and the lumbar region which is best suited for carrying loads, and not by a strap over the top of the head as with the present cane basket. Pluckers can interact more easily with colleagues while working as movement of the head and neck is easier with this.

A similarly-developed leaf conveyance system saves the pluckers the trek to weighment stations with their loads of leaf to wait in line to get it weighed. Weighing and recording are done at the bush by a field assistant, who lifts the nylon bag out of its frame and replaces it with an empty one. Plucking resumes after this brief interruption. The assistant carries the leaf in the bag to a path, where it is bulked into plastic crates. The crates are stacked onto trailers pulled by a tractor to the factory door, where the leaf arrives in pristine condition for manufacture.

The TRI is concerned with the better organisation of the tea factory to maintain quality and hygienic standards, control costs, and add value to the final product. Changes are being initiated in the placement of machinery according to ergonomic principles and making the factory floor more worker-friendly.

Research in process technology is aimed at introducing electronic temperature, humidity and pressure sensors into the manufacturing sequence, under an automated computer-based monitoring, command and control system. Computerisation and automation will improve productivity and, as with field mechanisation, elevate factory workers to the status of food technicians.

All these efforts should serve to stem the flow of workers from the Sri Lankan tea industry, and hopefully also attract workers back to a fuller life in the tea lands.

Dr. W.W.D. Modder is the director of the Tea Research Institute of Sri Lanka.

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