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Sri Lanka’s Economic crisis severely impacted Plantation daily-wage workers

Sri Lanka's Economic crisis severely impacted Plantation daily-wage workers

Families are being forced to ration tea and meals due to scarcity, As Sri Lanka’s economic crisis makes headlines around the world, estate worker B. Sundararajan is witnessing it in his teacup.

In recent weeks, he has reduced his daily tea consumption from two to one cup. ‘Milk powder is difficult to come by. When it is available, it is not cheap. We have no choice but to reduce our tea production,’ said a resident of Doloswala village in Sri Lanka’s southern Ratnapura district. Aside from the irony of a tea plantation worker rationing his own ‘Ceylon tea,’ Mr. Sundararajan’s reality reveals the severity of Sri Lanka’s current economic disaster.

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Inflation is rising

The country’s rapidly depleting foreign reserves — $3.1 billion by the end of 2021. The government requires dollars to import foods, fuel, and medicines, all of which have been in short supply in recent weeks and months. As the country has milk powder, which is primarily imported and widely consumed in Sri Lanka in place of fresh milk.

Thousands of people are struggling to afford staples such as rice, pulses, vegetables, fish, and meat, which are becoming increasingly expensive due to import restrictions imposed to save foreign currency. Last week, consumer price inflation reached 14%. Finding cooking gas cylinders, which are in short supply, remains difficult.

And if the consumer is a daily-wage worker like Mr. Sundararajan, whose hard-earned LKR 1,000 (366) wage is bonded to hectic production targets, foregoing a cup of tea or even a meal is the only option, as it is for many poor families.

The story of Sri Lanka’s economic downturn came to the fore as a result of the pandemic, which dealt a severe blow to the country’s vital foreign exchange earning sectors. Sri Lanka has nearly $7 billion in foreign outstanding debt this year, and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa recently told the Financial Times that Sri Lanka is ‘trying all options to avoid a default.

India and China have provided emergency assistance in the form of loans and currency swaps, but Sri Lanka remains on the verge of collapse. The national polity, policymakers, and think tanks are debating whether the country should seek IMF assistance. Some analysts even argue that Sri Lanka should prepare to default and then restructure its debt, despite the government’s determination to maintain the country’s impressive track record in foreign debt repayments.

Plantation workers and wages

In the meantime, plantation laborers in Sri Lanka, such as the almost 900 employed in tea and rubber estates in Doloswala village, did not have to wait until the pandemic to experience hardship.

‘Over the last few years, our workers’ 1,000-rupee wage struggle has been in the spotlight.’ They won the wage, but the community has been struggling with 1,000 other issues for decades,’ said Anthony Masilamani, who works for the local administrative authority. He was speaking at an event organized by a local catholic church.

‘No matter how large their families are, our people are still living in overcrowded line room housing.’ Higher-level mathematics and science teachers are not available in our schools. There aren’t enough toilets. ‘This is our reality,’ he said, emphasizing that the country’s recent economic crisis largely caused the workers’ sufferings.

Several youths who worked in shops and restaurants in Colombo’s capital have returned to the village jobless since the pandemic, according to Fr. Jeewantha Peiris, who organized the event. ‘Physical distance maintaining is impossible in their line room accommodations.’ Many of the children were already underweight. Because of the current shortages, the situation has only gotten worse.

Even so, rubber estate workers in Sri Lanka receive far less attention than their counterparts working in tea estates, primarily in the central highlands. This is despite the fact that rubber is the third most important item in Sri Lanka’s export basket, after apparel and tea, and accounted for nearly $1 billion in exports last year.

A lady, Lourde Manila who works in a local rubber factory says that she has to do the work of three people to earn the maximum wage. ‘I have three children, and their education and future are dependent on what I can afford today,’ she explained. How are we are going to feed our children and pay for their education when the cost of living is so high and wages are low?’

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According to Mr. Masilamani, most NGOs working on plantation sector rights focus on tea estates in upcountry districts. ‘We live in the south, among a majority of Sinhala people.’ Even our own people in other places don’t always think of us as Malaiyaha [hill country] Tamils. ‘It’s as if we’re invisible,’ he stated.

Workers also spoke about the community’s long-denied land rights, which have left them economically unprotected for centuries. ‘If we had our own piece of land, we might build a small house, grow some vegetables, and apply for a bank loan with our documents to start a small business.’ We can’t do any of that because we don’t have ownership. ‘We can’t even cut the branches of a tree in front of our house to make a roof,’ A. Anton explained.