Sri Lanka’s Trade Unions must not senselessly oppose every progressive and practical approach that is being proposed to improve productivity and if this attitude persisted, the dissipation of the industry will hasten, the Chairman of the Planters’ Association (PA) of Ceylon, Roshan Rajadurai warned last week.

Addressing the 161st Annual General Meeting. Rajadurai said that the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC) and the Planters’ Association (PA) have proposed a Revenue Sharing and a Productivity Based Wage Model to the worker unions in order that the workers who desire so to have the opportunity and the ability to earn the desired daily wage.

“We do not see any reason as to why the Unions should reject these models as there have been many estates where these models have worked successfully on experimental basis. The success of more than 400,000 tea smallholder operators which is almost 2 ½ times the RPC worker strength is a good indicator of the effectiveness of this scheme for the 170,000 RPC workforces to emulate,” the Chairman said.

Noting that while the planters have increased the daily wage of workers 11 fold from 1992 to 2013, this year, he said that they have also clearly explained to the representative worker Unions their inability to pay such a high percentage of wage increase purely because of unaffordability as commodity prices have crashed to comparatively lowest levels.

“I wish to reiterate that the most important and the critical stakeholders, the workers must even now at this late stage take the issue of labor productivity even more seriously than ever before. It is not an exaggeration at all to state that the sustainability and the continuation of the industry and the livelihood of around one million people are in peril if some radical changes are not effected now. As I mentioned at the last AGM, there is ample room for improvement to the productivity levels of pluckers at estate levels as we have seen at the ground levels.

While our daily plucking averages are around 18 kilos of tea leaves, in India it is close to 30 kilos and in Kenya around 48 kilos.”

“The current attendance based wage system with a guarantee of a minimum number of 300 days of work per annum without any relevance to the seasonal variations in crop and daily individual output, which is inherent any agricultural enterprise, is a great disincentive for productivity at all levels. Enabling a conducive and a favorable environment for enhancing productivity which will result in creating and improving the earning capacity of the workers must be viewed seriously by everyone concerned,” the Chairman emphasized.

Spelling out the way forward, Rajadurai said that the industry needs to develop superior planting materials by identifying elite clones with the help of the Research Institutes, to change the inherent plant architecture where required to increase productivity, improve quality and to adopt to mechanization, fine tuning harvesting machines to suit Sri Lankan conditions with emphasis on quality of the Tea Leaf and the longevity of the Tea Bush, develop appropriate planting models to aid mechanization of Field Work from the re-planting stage itself and incentivizing re-planting and quality oriented manufacturing initiatives, public-private partnership programs to facilitate value added exports with support from the State Machinery for the promotion of Ceylon Tea in select countries and in new markets highlighting the positive aspects of Ceylon Tea.

In 2017, Ceylon Tea will celebrate 150 years of official existence since its founding as a commercial plantation crop in 1867.