A welcome step | Daily News

A welcome step

President Ranil Wickremesinghe's pledge to personally intervene to resolve the issues confronting the plantation community and that of the Tamils in the North and the Muslims is a welcome move indeed - particularly, with regard to the estate community who have for far too long been a voiceless lot ignored and discarded by all and sundry. This has made them ready supplicants of plantation sector politicians who had been using them all along for their personal enrichment, being exploited and used for bargaining during time of elections. Why not? The estate vote had been proved decisive in most elections. Ranasinghe Premadasa would not have been President in 1988 but for the estate vote which tilted the scales in his favour.

Hitherto, the estate Tamil community had been made the exclusive property of these crafty politicians with the intervention of national leaders to resolve their problems a no go area. This way the community had been kept perennially tied to these politicians and exploited to the hilt. Hence, it was time for the direct intervention of a national leader to redress their multifarious issues.

As the most important priority, the plantation community should be rid of the drudgery of their existence and delivered from their acute poverty. Today, for the estate community there is no life beyond the tea bushes and their line rooms. The children take after their parents as tea pluckers, for their economy does not provide for the luxury of schooling. The year 2023 marks exactly 200 years since the British brought down South Indian Tamils as indentured labour to work on the plantations. Nothing has changed much for them during these 200 years. They still live in line rooms in the most primitive conditions, paid paltry wages, and exploited in every way. This community deserves better considering that they are among the forefront in bringing foreign exchange to the country by their blood, sweat and tears. But they are condemned to live a hand to mouth existence. Although the daily wage of a tea plucker is Rs. 1,000, after deductions for EPF and Trade Union fees they are hardly left with Rs. 800 to survive on. With a pound of bread now nearly Rs. 200 and taking into account those plantation families are large ones -sometimes close to a dozen children in a family- and with bread being the staple in the estates, how these souls survive at all can only be left to one's imagination.

Immediate steps should be taken to increase their daily wages so that they could come out of their dire situation. Many pledges were made during past budgets to raise the wages of the plantation community only to meet with stiff resistance from the Estate Management Companies. True, the Management Companies are facing hard times following the economic meltdown and the loss in exports during the pandemic. But this cannot always be cited in extenuation. The Companies had received many concessions from the Government in the past. They should be persuaded to loosen their purse strings on behalf of the estate community to whom life has become unbearable today. To make matters worse there is also rampant alcoholism in the estates where the rot gut is consumed even by the women folk. Perhaps, poverty and misery has made them find escape in the devil's brew. This problem should also receive the attention of the authorities for it could seriously affect production and in turn cause a drop in tea exports.

Meanwhile, Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara has proposed to bring special laws to protect plantation sector worker rights. At a meeting with representatives of plantation sector trade unions in connection with programmes to be undertaken to mark 200 years since the arrival of plantation workers to the country, the minister said worker rights of the plantation community will be incorporated in the new labour laws to be drafted within the course of this year. He said plantation workers are currently not considered as public sector or private sector employees and are not covered by the Wages Control Boards. The minister expressed confidence that the new laws introduced for plantation workers would give them better protection when it comes to employment related issues.

While this is a positive step, measures should also be taken to emancipate the plantation community from their monotonous and slavish lives in the estates and absorb them into the mainstream community. Particularly, the youth in the plantations should be given the necessary education to make them realize that there is another life outside the confines of the estates and tea bushes. It is being uneducated and caught up in the vicious cycle of the daily grind of estate life that has made the estate community easy conquests of the politicians. Hopefully, the President's personal intervention to alleviate the conditions of the plantation community would bring about the desired results. They should no longer be an ignored and discarded community. The country owes them much for the signal contribution they make to bolster the economy.

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