Menaha Kandasamy, the president of the Ceylon Plantation Workers Red Flag Union, recently visited Australia at the invitation of Australia-Asia Worker Links.
Kandasamy told Green Left Weekly the union mainly represents workers on tea and rubber plantations, though recently it has begun organising domestic and garment workers.
The tea plantations were established under British colonial rule in the 19th century, using workers bought in from southern India. Kandasamy said the relationship between workers and management, amounting to "semi-bonded labour", has remained the same despite changes in ownership. The plantations were nationalised in the 1970s, then most were privatised in 1992.
The workers are extremely poor. Many still live in “line rooms” — small one-room dwellings on the plantations.
There are serious health and safety problems. Pesticides are used on the crops and enter the workers’ bodies through cuts in the hands.
Workers face disrespectful treatment, including sexual harassment, from the bosses.
Many plantation workers have difficulty exercising their rights as Sri Lankan citizens. In 1948, plantation workers were denied citizenship in the newly independent Sri Lanka. In 2003 citizenship was granted “on paper”, but many plantation workers are unable to get an identity card because they had no birth certificate.
Another issue is the lack of real equal pay between male and female plantation workers. Women do most of the tea plucking. The time they spend walking to and from the crops is not counted as work. Their real working day may be as long as 10 hours.
Unions in Sri Lanka have traditionally had a male-dominated culture. As a result, there has not been much space for women to become union leaders. To overcome this, the Ceylon Plantation Workers Red Flag Union set up a women's section, which was successful in joining many young women to the union and showed that women can be union leaders.
The union gives training to new members in basic class and gender analysis. It also educates members about bargaining with the employers.
The government is now planning to sell off some publicly owned tea estates to unknown buyers, possibly for tourism developments. Workers are concerned that they may lose their livelihoods and homes.
The union is demanding the workers be given land as well as technical support so they can grow crops themselves — either individually or in workers' cooperatives, whichever they prefer. The union also says the government should purchase the crops. The government has not yet responded to these demands.