In a bid to enlighten the public and key stakeholders, planters last week released a communiqué, explaining the methodologies and calculations adopted in calculating the Cost of Production (CoP) of tea. The communiqué was released by the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, with a view to facilitate open discussion on the CoP of tea and affordability of estate sector wages.

The Association, which represents 22 Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) collectively employing nearly 200,000 workers, explains that together with Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) and Employees’ Trust Fund (ETF) obligations, the daily cost borne by a plantation company in employing an estate worker is approximately Rs.700 (excluding other commitments such as gratuity, holiday pay and attendance bonuses, etc.).

The daily plucking average of an estate worker in the country is around 18kg (based on annual figures) which is usually the upper limit when climatic conditions are most conducive. The actual average is often lower; particularly in the case of male pluckers. During the dry season and amidst extremely wet weather, the daily plucking average often drops between 14kg to 12kg. The 18kg of tea leaves plucked converts to 3.87kg of made black tea, also referred to as Plucking Labour Output (PLO).

Labor component
With regard to gender division of plantation sector workers, around 52% are female and nearly all women are engaged in harvesting/plucking, while 48% of the workers are male.

Therefore, in total only around 55% of workers employed by the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) are pluckers as workers are required for other agricultural activities such as weeding, fertilizing, upkeep of plants and other agronomic activities – without which plucking cannot be carried out – and factory work. Thus, the actual output per worker (including pluckers as well as other agricultural and factory workers employed) is only 2.12kg of made tea [(3.87/100)x55]. This is referred to as Revenue Labour Output (RLO).

The total labor component of the cost of production of tea can therefore be arrived at by dividing the Rs.700 (borne by a plantation company per plucker per working day) by the Revenue Labour output, which amounts to Rs.330 (Rs. 700/2.12).
However, the labor cost is only approximately 67% – 70% of the cost of production of 1kg of tea as additional expenses are incurred on other inputs including chemicals, material, fertilizer, fuel and on staff providing support services relating to health, welfare and childcare, etc. in the estates – which primarily benefit the pluckers themselves. Thus the total cost of production amounts to Rs. 471 [(Rs. 330/70)x100].

At the Colombo Tea Auction, however, the monthly auction average for April 2015 was only Rs.408, thus representing a loss of Rs.63 per each kilogram of tea sold by Regional Plantation Companies.

Level of output
These calculations indicate that to break-even (assuming no change in other variables), the daily total cost per plucker incurred by a company at the price which prevailed in April 2015 at the Colombo Tea Auction, should be approximately Rs.580, despite the figure actually being in the excess of Rs.700. Alternatively, at the present level of output, for companies to break-even the average at the Colombo Tea Auction should be in the region of Rs.470.

“Simple calculations, which can be worked out by anyone, clearly show the conundrum faced by the plantation companies at present, following the drastic reduction in the price of Ceylon Tea due to external factors – including the global downturn in commodity prices and volatility in our key export markets,” Chairman of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, Roshan Rajadurai said. “The revenue earned by the plantation companies is far below our costs and with estate sector wages too being determined externally by politically-motivated negotiations which take no account of ground realities, the industry’s sustainability is at stake.”

“It can also be seen that apart from wages, a substantial component of the cost of production relates to benefits and services provided to the estate workers themselves, including the cost of staff employed to provide health and welfare-related services in the estates,” Rajadurai pointed out, noting that an increase in labor productivity (reflected in the daily plucking average of tea) in particular could assist in at least partially offsetting losses faced by plantation companies.

Spirit of partnership
Not taking into account biological revaluation of assets – which only represent accounting/book profits and arise as a result of plantation companies having to comply with International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) – 19 Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) represented by the Planters’ Association collectively made a loss of Rs.2,850 million on tea and rubber in 2014.

“While it is acknowledged that naturally there are expectations, it is critical that all stakeholders including the trade unions and the government work together with the plantation companies in the spirit of partnership with the long-term sustainability and survival of the industry in mind, rather than merely adopting a short-term focus, which would be detrimental,” the Planters’ Association Chairman emphasised. “All must be mindful that the industry sustains around one million people and considering their skill-set, they cannot be readily absorbed into any other industry.”