Single housing remains the primary need of plantation estate workers

Govt. should intervene to solve wage issue

Minister of Hill Country, New Villages, Infrastructure and Community Development, Palani Thigambaram spoke to the Nation regarding the significance of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s visit to the upcountry, the issues faced by the estate and plantation workers, the current status of the collective agreement, and what they wanted by way of constitutional reforms.

Q : What is the significance of Modi’s visit to the hill country?

For over 200 years, estate and plantation workers have come to Sri Lanka from India. Yet, no Indian ever came to see us. For the first time, Modi came to see us. We are happy. We are happier that Modi, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe were all on the same stage. India helps us. They built a hospital. They have built houses, given monies and scholarships. We expect more.

Q : What are the issues presently faced by the estate and plantation workers?

There is really only one main problem. That is that instead of line rooms, houses must be built for them. They must be given land. This Government is providing a plot of land of seven perches to each family of workers. President Sirisena gave them the deeds. Line rooms must be removed. Single houses must be built. Otherwise, these people will never change and neither will there be a change in their lives. By 2020, we plan to construct 50,000 houses.

Q : What is happening to the collective agreement? What about the wages of the workers?

In this case, the issue is that the Government hasn’t intervened. It is the companies and the workers that negotiate. Previously, the companies argued that the prices for tea and rubber in the markets had come down and therefore, they couldn’t increase wages for workers as per the amount demanded by the workers, as, if they did so, they would have to close down the estates, plantations and factories. Now however, the price of tea in the market has risen. The wages of the workers must similarly increase. We expect that the companies will see to it that such is done soon.

They work from morning. They need physical strength. When they go home, they need food. They cannot eat properly with the pittance they receive. When they are paid well, they work more, and the company in turn gains more profit. When they get paid a pittance, they don’t work, and the company loses out.

Q : There are shortages of teachers in the areas where the estates and plantations are.

There are shortages of teachers in the science and mathematics streams and subjects. These major lacunas and shortcomings must somehow be addressed. We have discussed with Wickremesinghe in this regard. Teachers must be found from these areas or from elsewhere including Jaffna or even India.

Q : What do the workers demand in terms of the proposed constitutional reforms?

The demand is for equality as is the case for all the other people. The people in the estates and plantations live together with Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils. We in places like the Nuwara Eliya District have and can live together. We are used to it. They work from the morning for a low wage. They have no education. They must be developed. They must have the opportunity to take up good jobs in the Government sector.

Local Government authorities must be increased. The number of divisional secretariats must be increased.

These are a people who have never attempted to separate the country. These are a people who have never demanded for an opportunity to govern and run the country. There must however be some development in their lives.