Kochi: Rising labour costs and difficulties in retaining skilled personnel are chipping away the gains Kerala’s plantations made in the past five years following higher commodity prices.
“Improvement in prices has not pepped up the plantation sector mainly on account of the escalating cost of production,” said D.P. Maheswari, president of the United Planters Association of Southern India, or Upasi, pointing to the Minimum Wages Act where employers have to agree to what is “euphemistically called a negotiated settlement”.
Price Gain (Graphic)
Wages typically comprise 60% of an estate’s operational costs. Daily wage for a worker in tea and coffee estates in Kerala has been fixed at Rs115, while that for rubber estates is Rs150.
In Tamil Nadu, wages in tea estates were recently fixed at Rs101.53, he said.
“Delay in harvest owing to non-availability of labour is a common feature in coffee estates during the peak season. The official version is that wages are the prime reason for higher costs,” said the manager of a plantation firm on condition of anonymity. “The reality is that often we do not have sufficient workforce.”
“Retaining workers is a major problem facing estate owners,” said Ashok Kuriyan, chairman of Balanoor Plantations and Industries Ltd and chairman of the Speciality Coffee Association of India. He also pointed out that with growing development activities outside the estates in infrastructure and real estate projects, workers are moving to greener pastures.
Adding to their woes is the Central government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme—that ensures 100 days of work in a year to the poor—which is attracting estate workers.
“Since plucking coffee, picking tea leaves or tapping rubber is skilled labour, estates find it important not only to find new labourers but also retain those already there through better living conditions,” Kuriyan said. “But there has to be steps to ensure higher productivity to match rising wages.”
There is need for the industry to realize that the younger generation is not attracted to work on estates, said J.K. Thomas, managing director of Malankara Plantations Ltd, and a former president of Upasi.