With a view to ensure the sustainability of a rapidly failing industry, the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) say it is imperative that harvesting yields are increased and are introducing suitable ‘tea harvesters’ on certain estates. To support plantations workers too in improving productivity, Regional Plantation Companies are mulling greater use of manual shears, recent experiments of which have shown early encouraging signs.

In most of the estates managed by the RPCs, in which the workers were given training to use manual shears, an approximately 4kg increase has been witnessed in the daily plucking average (compared with the previous year). In order to improve the plucking efficiency and to overcome the shortage of pluckers, more and more estates are resorting to the use of harvesting shears. Compared with other competing Tea Economies, figures indicate that the labour productivity of Sri Lankan Tea pluckers is very low.

It is expected that the use of the Shears will mitigate this anomaly to some degree but greater effort is required to catch up with the outputs of other countries. The labour component in the Cost of Production is close to 67% – 70% of the total cost of production of a 1kg of Made Tea and the harvesting operation is the most labour intensive and the most expensive item in the cost of production – accounting for 45% of the total cost. This is a result of the daily plucking output of local pluckers being in the region of 18kg whilst in Kenya it is around 60kg – 70kg, in South India over 50kg and in North India over 36kg.

Besides improvement in productivity, use of shears benefits both the estate and the worker. Despite early objections due to lack of familiarity, workers too have often later demonstrated willingness to use manual shears as they avoid certain issues with hand plucking – such as staining of fingers etc. Manual shears have also been found to be more beneficial to the health of the tea bush by contributing to improvement of ‘maintenance foliage’ and eliminating below-level harvesting etc.

However, shears can only be used in certain instances/tea gardens and are particularly unsuitable for usage during the dry season.

“The Regional Plantation Companies are assisting workers to improve productivity through various means, as it is critical for the sustainability of the country’s plantation industry, given that there is significant room for improvement in the productivity front in comparison with competitor nations,” Roshan Rajadurai, the Chairman of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon – which represents the Regional Plantations Companies – said. “Especially given the large losses being incurred in the production of tea at present, as a result of low auction prices but high production costs, all stakeholders should cooperate in improving productivity and the Regional Plantation Companies are fully committed in this regard.”

To assist and motivate workers to improve productivity, Regional Plantations Companies have undertaken other initiatives such as providing uniforms for plucking staff and have adopted good agricultural practices to improve yields of tea estates.

Even after accounting for lower land productivity in comparison with competitors (due to the tea bushes being older etc.), the daily plucking average in Sri Lanka has the potential to improve substantially. The Regional Plantation Companies therefore have proposed to replace the existing daily wage system with a model in which remuneration is linked to output, to encourage greater productivity. However, the proposals for a revenue sharing system or a productivity-based wage system are being resisted by the estate sector trade unions.