Reuters responds to The Planters’ Association of Ceylon


Thomson Reuters Foundation responded to The Planters’ Association of Ceylon statement published on Friday 5 April that claimed that Thomson Reuters Foundation’s expose on labour abuses on tea estates were false. 

Following is the response from Kieran Guilbart, the Thomson Reuters Foundation commissioning editor, along with documentation to back up its allegations:

My name is Kieran Guilbert and I am the Slavery and Trafficking Editor at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. I commissioned a freelance story – ‘Tea Label Giants Vow Probe after Sri Lanka Labour Abuse Expose’ – from Lisa Fuller and am writing in response to your statement on our reporting.

Our report adhered to our high journalistic principles of being fair, accurate and impartial with all sides in this story given their opportunity to comment. We also have written proof of all the accusations workers made to us about their treatment, all of which were put to the plantations’ managers and the Government. 

1.“No comment had been sought from the PA or its constituent members”

Lisa sought responses from the estate managers who are your RPC members’ management employees – which means we sought comment from managers at all four relevant constituent members and quoted three of them. For example, Indra Gallearachi, the Deputy Manager of Robgill Estate who we quoted, is part of the management team for Kelani Planations (an RPC/constituent member) according to their 2017-18 annual report. (See attached snapshot)

The Brunswick Estate Manager referred Lisa to Maskeliya Plantations central management in Colombo, and she made eight phone calls on 12 March seeking an interview with them, but they failed to respond. None of PA’s RPC members referred us to the Planters Association for comment.

2.“Illegal wage deductions have been made from worker salaries that amount to cuts of as much as 87% of wages is a demonstrably false allegation.”

Lisa gathered wage slips with even higher deductions. Please find attached three wage slips with deductions of 87%, 97%, and 133%, with the identifying information blocked out. 

3.“Slashing wages by more than three-quarters is illegal. In truth, deductions above 50% are a violation of the law.”

Section 4 of the Allowances for Plantation Workers Act applies to the Wages Ordinance Act to dictate that the ceiling for deductions for plantation workers is 75%, not 50%. Please find attached the relevant sections of the law, marked in red.

4.“17 wage slips examined by the author showed workers taking home an average pay of $ 1.54 (approx. Rs. 270.2) daily “after debt repayments, salary advances and fees” is a demonstrably false allegation.”

Find attached the spreadsheet with all the data that shows the average is $ 1.54/Rs. 283.

5.“Tea harvesters are paid “for a half day” if they failed to meet the estate plucking norm of 18 kg is a demonstrably false allegation (and the assumption that this allegation was made based on a misunderstanding of the CBAs)”

This policy is not related to the wage scheme or any other provisions in the previous or current collective agreement and your response suggests that you misunderstand the findings. Workers reported and showed documentation that substantiated that on days that they failed to meet quota they were recorded as working for only a half day, when in fact they had worked for a full day. The policy was consistent across all estates, though the quota did vary at some estates. At one estate, an estate manager told Lisa that the fact that his quota was 15 kilograms showed that he offered workers a good package. 

Tambiah Eliyathamby did file a legal petition on behalf of the People’s Workers Union claiming that halving wages for failing to meet quota was a violation of the CBA (please find attached). The case was thrown out before it was heard because his union was not one of the signatories to the CBA, but it substantiates that our reporting is not based on a misunderstanding of the wage structure. This also contradicts your statement that no unions have ever challenged the policy. 

6.“Estate worker communities are the most impoverished and malnourished communities in Sri Lanka is a demonstrably false allegation”

This was a quote from the Minister of Plantations Navin Dissanayake, not an assertion by Lisa or the Thomson Reuters Foundation. A 2018 interagency UN report on Sustainable Development Goals and Sri Lanka’s 2016 Demographic and Health Survey, back up his quotes.

7.“Certification standards are only complied with during an audit is a demonstrably false allegation”

1) From the article: “Several labourers also complained that their estates only abided by the certifiers’ ethical standards during audits but they were afraid of reprisals if they revealed this to auditors.” This assertion is not from Lisa or the Thomson Reuters Foundation, but the workers who were interviewed by Lisa.

2) The Thomson Reuters Foundation provided a response from an estate manager who said that certification standards were always implemented. 

3) Lisa has pictures that shows that several guidelines are being violated, including waste separation, water pollution, and failure to delineate a 10 meter buffer zone from water sources.

8.“Protective gear is only given to employees during the audit is a demonstrably false allegation”

We never made such an allegation. The quote in the article is: “Normally we don’t wear the protective gear when we spray chemicals, but on the day that Fairtrade comes, the manager tells us we have to,” Most workers said protective gear is always available to them, but they don’t usually wear it because it is so unwieldy that it makes their jobs nearly impossible. As the quote says, the manager only tells the workers they “have to” wear it during audits. 

9.“RPCs themselves too have managed healthcare for employees, particularly in relation to antenatal and post-natal care through an organised mid-wife program across the estates while maintaining their own dispensaries, maternity wards and hospitals to treat estate workers.”

All of the estates had dispensaries, staffed only by pharmacists, with very limited medication available, and often were only open a few hours a day. For any serious illness or injury, workers had to go to hospitals outside of the estate.

10.“Every citizen of Sri Lanka has equal entitlement to free healthcare at any Government hospital.”

In the two examples that were provided 1) the worker couldn’t afford the bus to the hospital 2) the worker couldn’t afford medication, which was not available for free.

11.“Transport, and ambulance services are also provided free of charge to take patients to the nearest hospital in all RPC estates.”

Workers at multiple estates said they struggled to pay for transportation to hospitals. None mentioned transportation provided by the estates, with one exception, who said that she occasionally provided a ride on estate vehicles who were already going into town on an informal basis.

12.“In the event of deaths material, monetary and labour assistance as funeral aid is also provided free of charge…sanitation, housing, water supply, social services, sports, welfare, community and support services, religious places maintenance and many other facilities and amenities are provided free of charge.”

These items are often funded by deductions from workers’ salaries – even though the CBA does stipulate that the estates have to provide some of these services for free. To be specific: 

  • 9 of the 17 salary slips had deductions for the funeral fund
  • 11 of 17 had deductions for temple maintenance
  • 6 of 17 had deductions for “welfare”
  • 2 of 17 had deductions for sports fees

It is our hope that in the case of Fuller, she will at least be willing at this late juncture to meet with representatives from the PA and at the very least, publish the proceedings of such a meeting in a fair and unbiased manner in keeping with established standards of journalistic ethics.

Lisa would be more than happy to meet with you if you would like to discuss any of these matters further.

(Keiran Guilbart, the Thomson Reuters Foundation commissioning editor can be contacted via kieran.guilbert@thomsonreuters.com or +44 7780 225125.) 

(Reuters)

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