Sri Lanka: The plantation volcano erupts

The 15 day long tea plantation strike – the longest in recent history – is supposed to have come to an end.

It has involved a large part of the 400,000 strong work-force. The action started with go-slows (which spread to the rubber plantation workers as well) and ‘sing-alongs’ – another device to slow down the work! Many of the strikers have been involved in mass demonstrations, where effigies of their so-called leaders have been burned. “The plantation volcano has erupted!” declared one newspaper.

Solidarity demonstration at Fort railway station

The main organisations who claim to ‘represent’ the workers are the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), the Up-Country People’s Front (UPF) (both of whose leaders are ministers in the present capitalist UPFA government) and the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers’ Union (LJEWU) which is linked to the capitalist opposition party – the United National Party. All three of them have agreed to call off the strike. The new collective agreement includes a basic salary of Rs 170 plus a share supplement of Rs 20 and an attendance incentive of rs70. This is only a Rs 70 increase compared with the earlier tea workers’ total daily salary of Rs 190. (This sum is just over $1 and less than £1!)

The majority of the workers were not happy with the union leaders’ compromise and some were still determined to continue the strike until they win their Rs 300 a day demand. The most significant development was that this strike emerged as a spontaneous strike coming from the grass root workers’ level, undermining the union leaders. This development is very important because union leaders usually have a strong grip on the tea plantation workers. They are Indian-origin Tamils and the union leaders also come from the same community. But they have a history of political opportunism and betrayal of the workers’ real needs.

One of Sri Lanka’s daily papers carried an editorial supporting the workers’ demand, probably to avoid the confrontation spreading to other sections of the working class. But it pointed out that the conditions in which this section of society live and work have not changed since the British colonial rulers left after the second world war. The ‘lines’ in which the workers live are little better than cattle sheds. There are no proper toilet or cooking facilities.

In order to earn the tiny sums paid to the mostly female tea pluckers, they must go out in all weathers and whether they are fit or not. Pregnant women must work virtually until they give birth, and get no pay while ‘confined’ or ill. Many of the workers have had little or no education and remain illiterate. They have no chance to get other jobs in the area where they live and many young people are forced to go abroad to the Middle East to have any chance of employment.

Those union leaders who betrayed the original demand of the tea workers in a statement issued by the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon said the CWE and LJEWE agreed to a Rs 260 daily wage rise and had signed a collective agreement with the employers in front of president Mahinda Rajapakse. The UPF president, minister Chandra Sekaran, told a press conference he was not 100% satisfied with the Rs.260 rise but decided to call off the strike action after a discussion with president Rajapakse last evening.

It is very clear that the present capitalist government and the bosses and the government-supporting unions have betrayed the tea plantation workers’ strike. The United Socialist Party has distributed thousands of leaflets among the workers. It talks of the vast majority of the workers being Tamils of Indian origin who are economically and socially the most marginalised section of Sri Lankan workers. Other unions in the country, we said, should come out in solidarity action in support of the tea plantation workers’ strike. Unfortunately most of these union leaders are silent regarding the plantation workers strike and blindly supporting Mahinda Rajapakse government for their war plans against the Tamil-speaking peoples in the North and East presently.

Solidarity demonstration at Fort railway station

With the rising cost of living in the country and inflation going up from 8.1% in January of this year to 19.8% by December, it is more than justified for the poorest section of the Sri Lankan working class to fight for a salary increase from Rs.190 to Rs300. The opportunistic union leaders who are supporting the government do not care about the problems of the living standards of their own workers. That is why, for the first time in the history, the tea plantation workers have come out for their own demands, ignoring the so-called union leaders. We call for all unions not to isolate the tea workers’ struggle to live at the time of their critically important movement.

With poverty, subsistence wages to live on, these workers have nothing to fall back on. They urgently need help in the form of collections amongst workers in factories, offices and other work-places. The United Socialist Party has been arguing for this and for solidarity strike action starting with a one hour stoppage and building up to a 24 hour general strike. The plantation bosses are making huge profits from what is the island’s biggest export earner and their earnings are at a record level of Rs. 75bn. They say they have lost more than one billion rupees through the strike and make the usual complaints about going bankrupt and losing out to competition from India and elsewhere. But the workers’ movement must match the courage and determination of these workers. As Siritunga Jayasuriya said at a protest and solidarity picket held in Colombo last week – 13 December – “If the bosses are not prepared to pay these very modest sums that the workers are asking for, the industry should be taken back into public ownership with the workers running it under their control!”

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December 2006