Fall­ing Stan­dards

Sri Lanka’s tea pro­duc­tion is tak­ing a hard hit due to in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion and fall­ing do­mes­tic in­dus­try stan­dards.

Southasia - - Contents - By Bushra Khalid

Sri Lanka’s tea in­dus­try takes a hard hit from in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion and do­mes­tic de­te­ri­o­ra­tion.

Sri Lanka’s finest teas have their own in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics of aroma, color and fla­vor. Tea pro­duc­tion in Sri Lanka is of high im­por­tance, hav­ing a di­rect im­pact on the lo­cal econ­omy and the world mar­ket. Its tea in­dus­try is one of the main sources of for­eign ex­change and an im­por­tant source of in­come for la­bor­ers, pro­vid­ing jobs to mil­lions around the coun­try and serv­ing as a source of pride for the Sri Lankan peo­ple and their ex­port in­dus­try.

Sri Lanka has an es­tab­lished sta­tus as a leading pro­ducer of the best tea in the world. In re­cent years, how­ever, a marked dif­fer­ence can be ob­served be­tween rep­u­ta­tion and per­for­mance. The ex­port-ori­ented busi­ness is un­der in­creas­ing threat. Com­plex do­mes­tic is­sues have se­verely af­fected pro­duc­tiv­ity and ef­fi­ciency. In­creas­ing in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion has also had a di­rect im­pact on prod­uct price and prof­itabil­ity.

Sri Lanka ini­tially led the way in tea ex­ports and was suc­cess­fully meet­ing global de­mand. Ac­cord­ing to re­searchers, two main is­sues are con­nected with tea pro­duc­tion: the vast area of land re­quired to grow it and the in­ten­sive la­bor needed to har­vest it. Hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions have also oc­curred at plan­ta­tions in all ma­jor coun­tries in­volved in tea pro­duc­tion. Fur­ther­more, tea plan­ta­tions have a pro­found ef­fect on the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

One of the main is­sues faced by Sri Lanka is the poor wages paid to plan­ta­tion la­bor­ers. Plan­ta­tions do not give enough wages to pull these la­bor­ers out of poverty. Hous­ing con­di­tions are poor and med­i­cal care pro­vided on the es­tates is lim­ited. Over

the past few years, se­vere eco­nomic, in­dus­trial and po­lit­i­cal prob­lems have re­duced Sri Lanka’s stand­ing as the pre­miere tea pro­ducer in the world. To­day, Sri Lankan pro­duc­ers are fac­ing ma­jor de­ci­sions re­gard­ing pro­duc­tion meth­ods, ex­port mar­kets and prod­uct range.

The price rise has af­fected the sit­u­a­tion of work­ing class fam­i­lies to a much greater ex­tent. Most fam­i­lies do not have ac­cess to elec­tric­ity and are un­able to use kerosene oil for light­ing and cook­ing. On the other hand, fuel hikes have in­creased bus fares and prices of other es­sen­tials.

Ac­cord­ing to a fe­male tea worker, in the cold cli­mate, they al­ways have to heat wa­ter and meals. At the same time, they use kerosene oil for lamps be­cause there are fre­quent power cuts. Some plan­ta­tion work­ers have no elec­tric­ity at all. Most work­ers are al­ready shift­ing to fire­wood for cook­ing be­cause of the high price of kerosene oil. She also says that a new bur­den has come as the price of wheat flour, rice, lentils and other es­sen­tials are sky­rock­et­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, tea plan­ta­tion work­ers from Hat­ton and Ban­darawela, in Sri Lanka’s Cen­tral Hills dis­trict, re­cently spoke about the forth­com­ing plan­ta­tion work­ers’ congress. The congress has been con­vened by the So­cial­ist Equal­ity Party (SEP) in Hat­ton and is ex­pected to dis­cuss and adopt a so­cial­ist pro­gram to de­fend wages, liv­ing con­di­tions and the demo­cratic rights of es­tate work­ers.

Ais­laby Es­tate and Farm is still owned by the last re­main­ing Bri­tish plant­ing fam­ily in Sri Lanka. Af­ter the Ais­laby man­age­ment in­creased the ac­tual rate of tea pluck­ing, the work­ers at the es­tate vis­ited the lo­cal Cey­lon Work­ers Congress of­fice in Ban­darawela to have a meet­ing with the area union lead­ers and de­manded that ac­tion be or­ga­nized to fight the mea­sure. Ais­laby Es­tate has been a sig­nif­i­cant cen­tre in the fight waged in de­fense of plan­ta­tion work­ers by the SEP.

Be­sides, the Gov­ern­ment of Sri Lanka, with the sup­port of UNICEF, is try­ing to solve the prob­lems of poor diet and mal­nu­tri­tion in the tea es­tates across Sri Lanka. Spe­cial care is given to the chil­dren to pro­mote good diet and ed­u­cate them on the ben­e­fits of such prac­tices.

In the long run, the mar­ket and the sec­tor will have to ad­just them­selves to meet equi­lib­rium again. The gov­ern­ment has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to set up a sys­tem to take im­me­di­ate and nec­es­sary steps in times of a cri­sis like the one Sri Lanka is cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. Op­tions like form­ing a gov­ern­ment-con­trolled com­pany are avail­able. But such mea­sures have in­trin­sic prob­lems as past ex­pe­ri­ence il­lus­trates. Cur­rently, the best mech­a­nism is the Sta­bi­liza­tion Fund and there is an ur­gent need to re­store it. More im­por­tantly, it is crit­i­cal that such mea­sures be dis­cussed, keep­ing in mind the grave sit­u­a­tion, and the best al­ter­na­tives be en­forced through in­formed and com­mit­ted poli­cies.

The Gov­ern­ment is in a stronger po­si­tion to dou­ble per capita in­come in the next six years. The North­ern and East­ern Prov­inces that hold rich re­sources for agri­cul­ture, live­stock and fish­eries as well as tourism, are eco­nom­i­cally ac­tive ar­eas at present. These valu­able re­sources were pre­vi­ously de­nied to the coun­try. Even though there may be a press­ing need for high in­vest­ment to gen­er­ate higher growth, the real ben­e­fits can be reaped from the new space that the gov­ern­ment has lib­er­ated. Even with a lower rate of in­vest­ment, Sri Lanka can gen­er­ate more growth as the cur­rent ca­pac­ity will reach full pro­duc­tion in the near fu­ture.

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