Lonely Planet 'hotspot' workers demanding minimum wage, beaten up by police

By Athula Vithanage

Police beat up members of the plantation community who protested in Sri Lanka’s capital demanding a daily minimum wage of five dollars while their workplaces were celebrated by a top international travel publisher as tourist hotspots. 

The protest was the largest mass gathering in the country convened through social media, primarily by the sons and daughters of plantation workers.

Dressed in black, protesters descended on Colombo in their thousands from hill country tea plantations hundreds of kilometers away. 

Several of those plantations were promoted by Lonely Planet as “Top Experiences” for tourists in Sri Lanka, which has been named the best country in the world to visit in 2019.

Workers of all those estates were making the same demand for almost three years; A daily minimum wage of one thousand rupees.

Police violence

On October 24, plantation workers came to Colombo hoping to hand over their demands to President Maithripala Sirisena after talks broke down between trade union leaders and plantation bosses.

After nearly seven hours of waiting where no official was available to hear their grievances, the protesters launched a sit-down protest opposite the president’s office in Galle Face.

Around 7 pm street lights were switched off and riot police dropped in.

“Unlike in other protests where an official coming to meet representatives and accepting a memorandum containing demands, what we received was police violence,” said activist Anthony Jesudasan speaking to JDS.

Police used batons, tear gas and water cannons to disperse the workers, family members and activists.

In the face of rising cost of living, workers have been requesting a minimum wage of LKR 1000 for nearly three years.

Most recent talks broke down after the Planters' Association was only prepared to raise their salaries by another hundred rupees (USD 0.05). 

Ministers as union leaders

The workers were frustrated with their trade union leadership, who have a promised to take the matter up with the president. Many of those leaders are powerful ministers in the ruling coalition.

“Why can’t they take up the issue with the president at the weekly cabinet meeting?” one angry worker asked journalists.

“That is why we came to Colombo giving up the waiting for three months; To hand over our simple demand to the leader whom we voted to be president.”

President of the Planters Association Sunil Poholiyedda says that the industry was incurring heavy losses making it difficult to meet the workers demand.

“Give us the pay we deserve, and we will make the industry profitable and get the country also out of this debt trap,” said a worker at the protest.

Workers also demand the scrapping of the collective agreement between unions and plantation owners on wages, work conditions and welfare, which is due to expire this month.☐