We are given only the coffin when we die!
This is the story of the plantation workers of Ramboda R.B. Estate, who have been on a continuous strike for more than three months.
Ramboda is located in Nawalapitiya. When you go to such a place surrounded by mountains, you will see beautiful tea plantations while the thin mist curls up on the mountaintops like a cinematic image before you. If you can enjoy this beautiful view while sipping a cup of the famous Ceylon tea, which has gone from Sri Lanka to the world, aha! You are lucky.
To further this story, let's imagine you are a photographer. If all you're looking for is aesthetics, then your camera should capture the distance image.
But this time, the suggestion is to go to a close-up. If you zoom in your camera lens for a close-up, little by little, the camera will catch the line rooms between the hills. If you zoom in on details, you will see the aggrieved faces of people who are brutally exploited.
You will see lives being crushed by injustice, burning with all kinds of fires that are the by-products of life's struggle, scorched with pain, bowing to the powerful, crying that they can do nothing.
It would be best if you looked at those lives. But, you must not make aother mistake here. You must not look at those lives and say, 'Oh sin' and pity them. The oppressed are always suffering because of such 'sighs'. On the 200th anniversary of the arrival of plantation workers from India, the march from Mannar to Matale that ended recently, with the theme of 'Proud Malayaha People', had a critical story to tell the country.
They are not looking for your sympathy. They can't bear all these hardships all the time and enjoy the caress of sighs of pity. All the injustice they face cannot be tolerated, and kept under silence. The people of Malayaha must stand up without bowing down to anyone. Your camera lens pointing to the Ramboda RB Division Estate will view that fight. You will see their union representatives and plantation owners, using all weapons to stop that struggle.
In simple terms, the story of their fight is as follows. Up to eight occasions until now, they have resorted to continuous strikes demanding EPF/ETF money and other statutory payments due to them. There has been a problem regarding the ownership of this estate for some time. Even judicial actions were taken within this regard. The workers are suffering in this context.
From the workers' point of view, the employers who procure their services must uphold primary workers' rights. It is not their responsibility but the law of the land. Even though the salaries of these employees were reduced to the pension funds, the salary deductions were never credited to the pension funds like EPF/ETF. In recent times, about eight strikes were carried out in front of that injustice.
Their latest strike started on May 16, 2023. The strike has been ongoing for three months now.
However, their actions did not receive any favourable responses from the administration. Instead, letters were sent to intimidate the employees on three occasions. These people are not considered humans with beating hearts, having children, and facing pain and joy, simply as living beings. They are just tools. Employees are inanimate resources like land, tea bushes, machinery and vehicles in a tea garden.
If those resources are of no use, they can be thrown away. That's their logic.
The letter on July 5, 2023, stated: Since May 16, 2023, you have not reported to work in any way. You are hereby notified that as you have not attended work and have not responded to letters, please treat this as the final notice. After receiving this letter, you should report back to work. If you do not sign up for duty within seven days, you will be considered voluntarily leaving the service. Your name will be removed from the list. You must vacate your line room within 15 days after leaving service. It should be given back to the estate owner. Otherwise, legal action will be taken against you. Housing will be assigned to new persons recruited for work in your place. You will be charged for the losses caused by your failure to report to the service.'
When you look beyond the beauty of the veils of mist, your camera lens will now capture one brave man. He is the leader of the fighting group from the village. His name is S. Rajendran. He says:
'We have been working under this regime since 1991. Nirmala took us to the service of Vellasamy Estate. But at that time, we did not get EPF/ETF. Then, in 2015, the owner changed, and Pushparaj came. But, EPF was not paid. We met many people and told them about this, including trade unions. They promised us that they would take all the actions to support us. But they didn't do anything to us.'
They said they have been working since 1991, when the striking workers joined the service. Generations of them are living in this estate.
'In 2019, we stayed at home for a year and engaged in a strike against Pushparaj's rule. They brought in a new Modalali (owner) by force. That person said he would pay EPF. Bharat at Pussellawa CWC office agreed that we will pay EPF.'
'They said they would pay us. But did not pay.'
'Since May 16, 2023, we have not reported to work. No one looked for us. But three letters arrived. Those letters came to 65 people. Those letters said that you will lose your houses if you don't come to work.
'No one discussed anything with us.'
'We were residing in some forested land. But the police intervened and pressured us. We were asked to leave those lands in three days. I was summoned to the police and asked to leave the tea garden.
We don't know what to do. No one is looking after us.
Other than that, we have nothing. We don't have a school. They only gave us money for coffins when someone died. A pregnant person does not have money to hire a vehicle to go to the hospital for the delivery of the child.
There is no hospital. There is no transportation facility to get to a hospital from here for an expecting mother.
We are saying these things in the hope that we will get your support.'
Here, they call CWC the Ceylon Workers Congress. In their dialect, it is 'Thondaman's Party'. Ceylon Workers Congress works as a political party that contests elections and also as a trade union. However, the said strike is not affiliated with the Ceylon Workers Congress and is independent of it.
They perceive that Pushparaj's or other Modalali's are the competing groups for controlling the tea estate amidst the legal ambiguities of ownership.
The Ceylon Worker's Congress has intervened from time to time only to appoint a new Modalali to take advantage of the ambiguous legal status of the estate's ownership and to make 'about to be broken' promises about what the workers will receive from the new owner Modalali's.
If you further point your camera lens at a group of older women standing in front of a row of line houses, one mother will be saying:
'We have been working in this estate since 1991. Different Modalali's came and left. But we face the same problems to date. They took us to sign contracts. They took us to Nawalapitiya town. They took us to different places.
But there is no solution to the problem. The trade unions did not come to help us. The trade unions are just transferring one Modalali to another one.
We have been on strike for months now. The union tells us to go back to work. No one asks what our problem is. The people who work here have nothing. We believed and went to work. But, this is how we are treated.'
Another mother beside her would say:
I have been here for 54 years. I was born here. My mother was born here in this very tea garden. Mom was 72 years old when she died in 2020. My husband is here, too. When my mother died, I was given 3000 rupees for her coffin. My child also died. Then, they didn't even give money for the coffin. They have not given us anything else other than money for coffins.'
The story of ownership of the RB division is a complicated one. Information can be sourced from the land title case, APN 16/2016, heard in the Court of Appeal. Ramboda estate is 837 acres. The RB division is 50 acres. The Land Reforms Commission took over the Ramboda estate and later returned to the original owners' children. However, there have been conflicts regarding the estate's ownership after this transfer.
The workers allege that the estate is not maintained correctly and is being run like a jungle. Due to quality issues in the estate, the number of working days in the week is lowered. Therefore the monthly salary is less. Wages are not paid properly. They face these problems in addition to not allocating money to pension funds.
Although the Ceylon Worker's Congress is supposed to be the workers' trade union, they protect the management of this estate. The main reason for this is that the owners of this estate belong to the relatives and friends of the leaders of the Ceylon Worker's Congress.
The land they have lived on for generations is about to be lost. Ready to cut the allowances they have earned. They are prepared to take work from them by force without giving any facilities. They are now fighting for their rights. We should fully support their cause.
The People’s Alliance For Right to Land ( PARL )