Line housing of estate workers, Sri Lanka. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Line housing of estate workers, Sri Lanka. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Bargaining in a labour regime

Up-country Tamil plantation workers remain a subjugated community, treated as little more than bonded labour. The current political foment includes opportunities for change.

In September 2009, three estate trade unions and the Employers' Federation of Ceylon (EFC) signed a collective wage agreement with representative of tea- and rubber-plantation workers that raised their daily wage from 290 to 405 rupees (roughly USD 3.5). Despite this increase, however, the new wage is still unable to meet cost-of-living demands, thus continuing the chronic poverty and socioeconomic stagnation that the Up-country Tamil estate workers have long experienced. The reason for all of this is, of course, political marginalisation.

Post-Independence nationalist movements and the subsequent conflict between the government and LTTE have continually overshadowed the historical subjugation and disenfranchisement of the Up-country Tamils (those descended from South Indian migrant labourers). Consequently, this group has been unable to effect any sustained political change in support of its power-sharing rights, and its members are often marginalised within the debates of nationalist ideologies. In fact, Up-country Tamil political parties are often perceived as minority 'wild cards', because they work within a system of political patronage that forces them to shift allegiances between the majoritarian Sri Lankan state and various nationalist parties. With tenuous political traction, Up-country Tamil leaders must reflect on the historical reasons for their marginality and strategise beyond the presently missed opportunities, in order to secure a firm place for their constituencies in post-war Sri Lanka.

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Himal Southasian