Lean management to replace feudal model on tea estates to improve revenues

The age-old feudal work structure on tea estates still in existence since time immemorial has to improve productivity and welfare of workers, a new research revealed. In this regard tea estate labour unions need to work regularly with plantation companies, policy makers and workers in consultation with ex-planters to push for more welfare facilities for the people they represent and increase productivity, Verite Research Executive Director Dr. Nishan De Mel stated when he unveiled the findings of the research study. The research was commissioned by Virakesari of Express Newspapers aimed at improving the livelihoods of the majority Tamil speaking workers on the plantations.

Wage negotiations have been at a deadlock since 2015, it was pointed out adding that wages incentivise attendance but the structure adopted in estates was not motivating workers to increase productivity. He also observed that the workers should be given a career path that would ensure a plucker could move up the ladder as a supervisor or manager who are at present employed from outside the estates. It was noted that with most estate workers’ children getting educated and most of them could be provided jobs in the clerical grades of the tea estate factories or companies without these positions being outsourced.

Labour productivity is low compared to competing countries with the average daily plucking of a Sri Lankan estate worker at 18 kgs lower than the Indian plucking average of 27 kgs and Kenyan plucking average of 48 kg. However, this is attributed to both low labour and land productivity, Dr. De Mel said. He pointed out that low land productivity is the result of low rate of replanting, aging plant stock, degradation of soil fertility, and inattention to proper agronomic and agriculture practices. Sri Lanka’s yield per hectare is 1532.8 kgs which is only 70 per cent of Kenyan YPH of 21, 77.2 kgs and 72 per cent of India YPH of 2143.3 kgs.

In this respect it was noted that there is evidence to suggest that the perceived labour productivity issue in Sri Lanka is a reflection of the issue of land productivity. In the wake of the recent drop in production and low prices of tea which dominates the local tea industry’s profitability since last year, the research stated. Dr. De Mel pointed out that in this respect, labour unions needed to have the right information at hand towards proper collective bargaining with the managements of plantation companies which could be had if they employed ex-planters as consultants to carry out these negotiations.

It was also pointed out that when such a deadlock is reached it results in alternative employment sought by the workers and which is already taking place or work in small holder plantations. The research findings also pointed to the issue of lack of value addition which accounted for only about 10 per cent of teas which is being bagged for exports. In relation to unions and labour relationship, Dr. De Mel explained that unions have to motivate workers to stay and work on the tea estates in a bid to ensure profitability that could improve quality of life.

Negotiations could look to establish a mutually beneficial wage and reward system; improve quality of non wage conditions like basic healthcare and dignity, the research highlighted noting that estates doing well have overcome these social issues by giving workers uniforms and calling them by name. But giving workers tea dust was not a welcome move. In addition, Dr. De Mel said unions need to talk to managements to work out these issues with regular effective relations upheld through meetings.

The research analyst pointed out that the managements need to adopt lean management at the estate factories and go down to the workers to understand their requirements and facilitate negotiations as well.  The tea sector accounts for 14 per cent of exports and is one of Sri Lanka’s main sources of foreign expchange. It provides employment for about 300, 000 people out of which 75 per cent are women but contribution from the sector to the country’s GDP is less than one per cent, the research states.

By Sunimalee Dias

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