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Author Topic: Strike while the iron is hot by Sepala Ilangakoon  (Read 2759 times)
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« on: December 28, 2009, 03:04:35 PM »

http://www.island.lk/2001/03/07/midwee02.html

By Sepala Ilangakoon
The Island, 7th March, 2001


When I cast my memory back to the years of yore, the STRIKE weapon in the armoury of a trade union was used only as a last resort to resolve a labour dispute. Why? The answer is, because, stripped of economic catch phrases, a strike causes distress to the striker as well as to the employer. The striker loses his pay (strike pay was not in our vocabulary in those days long ago) and the employer loses his income.

What then, was the alternative? There were many options available to the union before embarking on that last resort. Negotiation, arbitration, joint agreements, etc. any of which were used depending on the exigencies of each case. Very often an independent individual or authority was the medium used to achieve a satisfactory solution acceptable to all parties involved in the dispute.

In addition to the Minimum Wage ordained by the Labour Department, there were other supplements to make the cash in the hand at the pay table, after deducting all dues, a worthwhile proposition to the employee.

I use the word ‘Employee deliberately, as its precursor "Coolie’ gave way to ‘Labourer’ to ‘Worker’ and finally to "Employee’ - each change for good reasons.

Some of these offered supplements were the Dearness Allowance, Profit Sharing Supplement, Attendance Bonus, etc. Also, there was a Guaranteed number of days work per week. This guarantee was not a difficult problem for the employer as he had a vast programme of work to fulfill before the end of the financial year and he readily offered the guarantee of days of work per week. Employers who had no progressive capital development programmes and annual estimates of current expenditure, and therefore had a negative outlook, would certainly have had a problem to offer a minimum number of days work per week.

Despite the above noted guarantees, the out turn of employees for daily work, was found to be below the employers’ expectations. After all, let’s face it, the basic formula is - more productive work done, more profit earned.

One of the ways of circumventing this conundrum was to offer ‘Contract Work’ (as opposed to daily work). The employee does the particular job to the standards of efficiency required by his employer, working whenever he feels so inclined (Flexitime is the modern term), but completing the job within the specified time frame. The contractor uses other members of his family (including unregistered children) to assist him. He usually finishes his daily work and then works on his contract which would comprise weeding, pruning, desilting drains etc. There were inbuilt advantages to the employer as well as to the employee in Contract Work.

The supplements to the Daily Wage as listed above, were accepted, but, rather ungraciously, as the employees were beginning to be aware of the somewhat disproportionate profits made by the employers, after incurring all the items of expenditure related to the employment of resident labour, such as the construction of adequate living accommodation, provision of water supply, etc. and the maintenance of these facilities in reasonable condition.

Labour union leaders started perusing the Balance sheets and Statements of Accounts of the employer companies and agitating for a greater share of the profits gained by the toil of their members. (They conveniently forgot to peruse the losses sustained in some years and to share in those losses in some way).

Profit Sharing came into the labour union jargon. Employers had to find a modus operandi to satisfy this demand. So was born the proactive Price/Wage Supplement, the bottom line of which was - in times of prosperity as generated by good market prices for the produce, share that prosperity with the employees; in times of adversity, the employees will accept that reverse by tightening their belts and accepting a lowering of the Price/Wage Supplement which, depending on the fluctuating market prices, varied from month to month. This was indeed a sociological departure, hailed by all as a progressive measure.

The labour unions sometimes tend to push too hard, too far, to the extent of crippling the employer. In fact, they are ‘Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs’ as the adage goes. This is where the union leaders must use their good sense to realize that enough is enough. This is where restraint is necessary. This is where a well seasoned union leader will use his expertise garnered over many years of give and take of union activity, to influence his decisions. Equally, this is where a ‘Green horn’ in the business, a new and immature trade union leader can make fatal mistakes - fatal to the labour union and fatal to the plantation industry, the life-blood of this country and ergo, fatal to the country. Beware! We all love our country!

This may be the opportune moment to peruse some statistics which may be relevant. The current average price per kilogram for High grown tea is Rs. 128.46, for Mid grown Rs. 119.08 and for Low grown Rs. 144.79. Also, as a matter of common interest, of the total tea exports, 55% is from the Low grown teas and of these, some 65% is privately owned, a large component of which is small-holders’ home gardens. Their prices are also high as the family carefully plucks their VP tea on strict four day rounds using no hired labour. Three cheers for the small-holders!

I may well be wrong in some of my assertions, due to the forgetfulness of a doddering septuagenarian who has been completely and deliberately out of touch with the plantation industry after being closely associated with it for half a century. So I would proffer old age as a ready excuse and hope to be forgiven by my readers!
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"You might think I say a lot about the scenery, but if you saw it, you will not think I say too much" - pioneering tea planter James Taylor describes Ceylon in a letter to his parents in Scotland
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