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.

The Upcountry Tamils are descendents of labourers who came to Ceylon under British rule and worked during the industrial boom as 'coolies' during the early 1800s. Beginning as labourers on the roads and railroads and, later, on the coffee plantations, this minority group became a permanent work force with the cultivation of tea. In 1948, the first government of independent Ceylon disenfranchised so-called Indian-Origin Tamils, leaving a majority of Up-country Tamils stateless and without citizenship rights. In 1964, President Srimavo Bandaranaike and India's then-Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri completed the arbitrary exercise of dividing 975,000 stateless Indian-Origin Tamils into three entities: 525,000 Indian-resident repatriates; 300,000 to be entitled to Ceylonese citizenship by application; and a remaining 150,000 residents, whose statelessness would be addressed at a later date.

Because the government of Ceylon became preoccupied with nationalisation debates and the subsequent rise of political violence, the remaining stateless persons became obsolete. As tensions between nationalist groups grew during the 1970s and 1980s, the question of Up-country Tamils' citizenship was largely forgotten, and repatriation efforts between Sri Lanka and India officially ceased in 1984. Desperate to prevent Up-country Tamil militancy and further support to the LTTE, President Chandrika Kumaratunga granted all stateless persons in Sri Lanka citizenship, and all Up-country Tamils finally became citizens in 2003. Nevertheless, a large number of Up-country Tamils still do not have legal documentation of Sri Lankan citizenship; it is estimated that nearly 100,000 Up-country Tamils in Nuwara Eliya District did not possess National Identity Cards during the February 2009 Central Province elections, and thus were unable to vote.

For Up-country Tamils living and working on the tea estates, sources of survival and basic rights (for instance, the right to housing, education and healthcare) are often not guaranteed. Despite a facade of welfare and development, the present estate-management structure and the dynamics of plantation life are little different from the tactics employed by the British planters and colonial administrators to control a resident work force. Workers still live in the 'line-room' housing structure designed under British rule. They still opt to buy rice and flour from the estate management out of lack of time and money for transportation, and still rely on monthly advances on their earnings, which leave them inevitably in debt to their employers. Given the economic constraints, facilities and opportunities afforded to them, Up-country Tamils are forced to make life decisions within a work system and labour regime that profits and thrives on their very underdevelopment.

Living on the wage
What is at the root of these hardships? The most basic reason for the community's stagnation has been the inability of estate workers to meet cost-of-living requirements on the given wage, nor to move upwards and out of poverty within the structure of plantation labour. Resulting from these colonial structures of production, Up-country Tamils also lack land ownership, forms of documentation, and access to mainstream social, education and health infrastructures. While the Sri Lankan government, trade unions and NGOs have often taken steps to introduce sustainable forms of development within the community, the initiatives have not been entirely uniform; further, the success of these efforts are monitored and determined by state-run plantation corporations, regional plantation companies, private owners and their respective, individual managements. Despite changes over time to the management structure, the nature of the plantation system and relationship of dependence between the estate worker and the management today remain central to this community's perpetual state of poverty and diminished level of involvement in civic life.

The first collective agreement was signed in 1998 between the Employers' Federation of Ceylon (EFC) and three trade unions – the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), Lanka Jathika Estate Workers' Union (LJEWU) and the Joint Plantation Trade Union Centre (JPTUC). The entire contents of the agreement are up for annual re-negotiation, and must be re-evaluated and re-signed every three years. The three union signatories were designated as representatives of the entire plantation labour force because their collective memberships comprised the majority (some three-quarters) of tea- and rubber-plantation workers in Sri Lanka at that time. The content of the collective agreement is not strictly limited to the wage, but also outlines employment regulations, benefits, estate facilities, and union- and worker-grievance procedures.

Up-country People's Front posters: "President. intervene for estate workers' wage raise" (Top) "Collective agreement or folk-dance agreement" (Bottom). Photo: Mythri Jegathesan / Himal Southasian February 2010
Up-country People's Front posters: "President. intervene for estate workers' wage raise" (Top) "Collective agreement or folk-dance agreement" (Bottom). Photo: Mythri Jegathesan / Himal Southasian February 2010

The remuneration package of the 2007 Wage Collective Agreement expired on 31 March 2009 without any decision regarding re-negotiation or, most importantly, the wage raise. According to union and media reports, the plantation companies had refused to offer a wage raise, citing the global economic crisis and consequent losses. Talks were held between the plantation companies and trade-union representatives during over the following six months, and work continued without contracts. Those talks ultimately failed. Acknowledging that plantation workers needed some sort of wage raise, the plantation companies offered a 12.5 percent increase on what was then the total wage of SLR 290 (which included a basic daily wage, price-wage supplement and daily attendance incentive, of which the latter two are not assured sources of income). The unions rejected their offer of SLR 326, and called for a guaranteed basic wage raise that would parallel the 52 percent cost-of-living increase that had taken place over the previous two years.

When the RPCs refused their demands, the unions called for no less than SLR 500 basic wage, citing humanitarian grounds. The RPCs then offered SLR 330 and later SLR 360, but the unions accepted neither of these proposals and decided instead to take collective action. The three signatory unions and other non-signatory unions initiated a 'work-to-rule' campaign, by which workers performed the minimum duties required, from 7 September until 16 September. The campaign ended up costing the plantation companies over SLR 800 million (USD 7 million). In the end, the 2009 collective agreement was signed on 16 September between the Employers' Federation of Ceylon and three trade unions, with a total daily wage agreed at SLR 405.

Immediately following the signing, however, a few of the non-signatory unions – such as the National Union of Workers (NUW), Up-country Workers Front (UWF), Democratic Workers' Congress (DWC) and Ceylon Workers' Alliance (CWA) – rejected the new agreement on the grounds of illegality and lack of worker representation during the negotiations. These unions felt that the government should have intervened on the grounds that the agreement violated the International Labour Organization convention on collective bargaining, which Sri Lanka had ratified as far back as 1972. The union representatives also stated that the current collective-agreement signatories comprised no more than 60 percent of the plantation work force, and were therefore unfit to make decisions for the entire plantation worker community. Finally, these unions said that the SLR 405 (a 28.4 percent increase on the previous total daily wage) was not enough to meet current cost-of-living requirements. Yet while plans to re-initiate the work-to-rule campaign (see above) after the conclusion of Deepavali festivities (in October 2009) were in place, it did not happen, largely due to miscommunication and lack of cooperation among the unions. In the end, all of the trade unions resigned to the reality of having to accept the new agreement.

Since the signing of the 2009 collective agreement, there has been a lingering sense of betrayal and resignation among Up-country Tamils regarding the inability of their leaders to ensure the economic rights of their constituencies. One Ceylon Workers' Congress representative admitted that the signatory unions felt cheated by the way in which the plantation companies allegedly manipulated the negotiations, and ultimately were forced to make a decision based on false disclosures of company profits and investments. Other unionists and activists felt that the collective agreement was a prototypical display of the politics of the opportunism that has defined much of Up-country Tamil post-Independence politics. Either way, for the ordinary estate worker, the new agreement was perceived as a mere stepping stone by the elite unionists-cum-politicians to secure votes for the next election and agreement between Colombo's moneymaking businessmen.

Enna ceyrathu
As the new collective agreement cannot be amended until March 2011, Up-country Tamil leaders must use the next year or so to acknowledge these missed opportunities and develop more-nuanced political strategies to ensure the rights of their constituencies on a national level. But at this critical moment, what are the main concerns for Up-country Tamils, and how can they sustain effective changes in their lives?

First off, Up-country Tamil leaders must reckon with the daunting task of reconfiguring an entire cultural community. The goal here needs to be to challenge their own constituencies to change unjust work practices, social inequalities and negative self-perceptions from within, and critically reflect on the consequences of their historical depreciation on a national and economic level. Sri Lanka's plantations were designed for a type of economic productivity that is fundamentally dependent upon the control of a cheap, resident workforce. The difficulty remains in the long-term process of ensuring social and economic rights within the work and life practices that have long limited their self-expectations and potential. To take just one instance of intra-community relations, Up-country Tamil women must be ensured more leadership positions within the plantation management, and the male-dominated estate trade unions must promote the active participation of women in decision-making.

Education and alternate employment opportunities must also be prioritised within the plantation system and lifestyle. The community has certainly seen some changes, particularly between the older and younger generations. Most youths today prefer not to follow their parents and grandparents to work on the plantations; for them, there is no honour or dignity in estate work, and they would rather attend university or diversify their vocational skills. By introducing changes to the labour regime, such as more state-sponsored welfare provisions and forms of employment outside the plantation, Up-country Tamils will eventually be able to challenge the conditions that have come to define their present state of poverty.

Up-country Tamils tend to articulate self-perceptions and make life choices in relation to the handed-down narratives of colonial empire and modern-day poverty in a liberalised economy; this mentality of resignation must change. The low wage and worth of life by means of an exploitative labour market has come to define external opinions and the understanding of the possibilities available to the entire community. Caste and class discrimination have imbedded themselves in this community's mindset. Alcoholism and domestic violence on the estates are commonplace, the results of hopelessness among other causes, and often go unaddressed by plantation managements and the larger community.

In Colombo and other urban centres, small shops and higher-class homes employ Up-country Tamil youth who are forced to support their families on the estate. In August 2009, two Up-country Tamils, both underage domestics, were found dead in one of Colombo's high-security zones. The girls, from the central Maskeliya estate, had been hired through brokers and sent to Colombo. Young Tamil mothers, unable to care for more children, continue to eagerly give consent for sterilisation procedures that pay a SLR 500 incentive. These are just a few examples of the ways in which Up-country Tamil estate residents continue to make decisions under the conditions of a captive labour force. The Sri Lankan government, community leaders, members of civil society and individual households must address and challenge this history of complicity, and develop multilevel and proactive strategies to break these cycles of social practice.

Up-country Tamil leaders must actively engage the question of a political solution and their own role in promoting more democratised forms of power-sharing and reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka. In 2006, the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) Expert Panel released a preliminary report outlining constitutional, language and cultural reforms, and one section was dedicated to enhancing power-sharing for the Up-country Tamils. Unfortunately, these recommendations did not find a place in the final APRC proposals when they were released in January 2008. Instead, the final proposals called for the retroactive implementation of the 13th Amendment and devolution of power to the provinces, seen as incomplete because the special status of Up-country Tamils would not be addressed adequately by such devolution (see Himal July 2009, "13th Amendment and beyond"). Up-country Tamil leaders must press the question of a political solution beyond the present Constitution, in order to ensure that their minority constituency is recognised as a viable stakeholder for power-sharing plans on the national level.

There is presently a widened space for dialogue on Sri Lanka's post-war future, due to the February 2009 presidential elections. Up-country Tamil leaders have been engaging the candidates and other political groups on issues concerning minority rights, the Emergency Regulations and internal displacement, and candidates seem determined to court minorities and secure their votes. In late December 2009, three senior members of the pro-government Ceylon Workers' Congress resigned from their party and crossed over to the United National Party (UNP) opposition, in support of presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka. While these union members were not representing Up-country Tamils in the cabinet or Parliament, the shift definitely points to internal rifts within this long-standing trade union. Other parties (such as the Up-country People's Front, which recently lost leader P Chandrasekaran) have remained loyal to President Mahinda Rajapakse, however. With Up-country Tamil leaders splitting their allegiances between Rajapakse and Fonseka, it is clear that both candidates value the votes of this minority group. However, persistent forms of political patronage and the lack of a concrete political solution suggest a continued story of their marginalisation. Up-country Tamil leaders must acknowledge the opportunity represented by the elections, and attempt to engage in forms of political participation that ensure the rights of their constituency.

Enna ceyrathu? This is a Tamil phrase uttered at least once a day by estate workers and their families. What to do? First, the remark reflects anxiety about the future. What should we do? What can we do? Second, it conveys a defensive remorse about one's past actions. What could I have done? What other options did I have? Third, it reveals the speaker's frustration with existing circumstances. What to do here and now? For Up-country Tamils, life choices at the moment are often made through forced consent amidst an all-pervading atmosphere of resignation and desperation. But given the setbacks of the past collective wage agreement and the current state of disillusionment with union and party leadership, there is definite potential to reflect upon and challenge the poverty and subjugation. What is certain is that Up-country Tamil leaders and their constituencies must develop new forms of bargaining that can more securely bring about political and social change.

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