Estate welfare programmes attempt culture change

Child development centre at Balangoda estate

Balangoda Estate, an estate of Balangoda Plantations PLC, in the Ratnapura District, says its welfare investments have resulted in a better quality of life for 653 families living in the estate. In November, the Planters Association of Ceylon organised a media tour for provincial journalists from Ratnapura and journalists from Colombo, to visit the estate.

The 631 hectare Balangoda Estate is home to over 3,000 men, women and children with 972 of these men and women working in the estate itself. The estate also has around 6 active trade unions.  The estate management says its welfare investment has increased steadily over the years.  


Mr Roshan Liyanage, the Superintendent of Balangoda Estate

“By 2009 we built around 300 new houses for estate families with government financial assistance. In addition to that, up to October 2010, we spent over Rs 2.4 million on welfare facilities. These include medical and transport facilities for patients, sports facilities, free feeding programmes and repairs to housing, toilets and water lines.  The welfare expenditure this year is already more than  Rs 400,000 above that of 2009,” Mr Roshan Liyanage, the Superintendent of Balangoda Estate, told the journalists.

The estate says its welfare measures are provided irrespective of whether estate families work in the estate, or not.

Balangoda Estate also has a hospital, which is managed by the government and provides free medicine. The hospital has  2 fulltime doctors and a dentist. The estate pays the monthly salaries of a midwife and a welfare officer, and maintains an ambulance.

The estate crèches take in preschool children and estate schools provide education up to Grade 10. Children wishing to study further have access to schools in Balangoda.

Mrs L Mookaie, a crèche attendant says children get a better start in life because of better education facilities.

“We take in children from a few months up to 5 years of age, free of charge, and they are given a nutritious meal as well. The modern crèches have proper pre-schooling facilities. Because of this, children are better prepared when they enter school. The parents, if they like, can make a contribution of Rs 100,” said Mrs Mookaie.

To encourage higher education the estate also provides scholarships for estate youth selected to enter university. A computer centre, with 2 computers and Internet facilities, has also been set up by the Thondaman Foundation for estate youth.

Half a century of memories

During the media visit journalists met Mr Nadesan Govindasami, who joined the estate over half a century ago, while it was still under British management.  Mr Govindasami dipped into over 50 years of memories to answer questions posed by journalists.

“I came here to pluck tea in 1958. I think I was only 12 years old then. At that time the white people ran the estate. Mr James Childerstone was the Superintendent here.  Because I am a good worker, today I am a Field Supervisor. I worked my way up,” said Mr Govindasami.

The father of 3 grown up children noted that life styles of estate communities have changed in many ways over the past 52 years.

 “Those days, under Mr Childerstone, the estate was very clean and run well. This is still the same. You can see how nice this estate looks. But some other things have changed,” he said.

 “These days small children are not allowed to work in the estate like I did. Now they have to be 16 to start work. Then babies were born in the line house. But now the ladies are taken to Balangoda Hospital to have babies. The crèches were also not so good then.  The babies were not looked after like now. The schools were there when I came, but they were not so good. Now there is computer learning also,” he said.

Some problems though, persist.

“A lot of people drink. Maybe it has reduced now, but still it is there. I drink also but not so much,” said Mr Govindasami.

The management says the alcohol culture prevents savings and leads to other social problems like violent behaviour.

“Alcoholism has reduced in our estate because of awareness programmes by the estate and other organisations. But still, both men and women drink. It is difficult to totally eradicate because it is a cultural feature. This is a major cause for persistent poverty in estates and also other social problems,” said Mr Liyanage, the estate Superintendent.

Alcohol and advances eating up wages

Balangoda Estate tea factory

The trade union representative of the estate is demanding higher wages. However, he too agrees that alcohol consumption is an expensive habit.

“Some people drink more. Then they have to spend more for alcohol. But still the wages are not enough compared to the cost of living. So we are asking to increase wages,” said  Mr S Subramaniam, the trade union representative for the estate. Mr Subramaniam  is a member of the Upcountry Workers’ Union.

However, the management says the low take home pay is due to the practice of workers taking ‘salary advances’ before pay day.

“They take salary advances to buy things like gold or electronic items, or to pay off loans, or for seettu. These advances are deducted from their salaries. This is why, very often, the final take home pay is in the range of Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000. Under the present wage structure, each person has the potential to earn up to Rs Rs 15,000, if they come to work regularly. So household incomes, where 2 people are working, can be very reasonable because they do not have to pay for housing, health, education and transport to work,” said Mr Liyanage

The trade union representative maintains that advances are unavoidable.

“People take advances mostly to pay loans, not to drink. They take loans to buy gold and electronic items and to renovate their houses. Girls must have gold jewellery or they cannot get married,” explained Mr Subramaniam.

Mrs N Packiyam, a mother of 3 children, working in the Balangoda Estate Tea Factory, said her husband works in the estate and also takes on outside work.

“My husband works for the estate but he also does labourer jobs in the village. Last month my salary was Rs 6,000 but that is because I could not come to work for a few days. My husband got about Rs 5,000 from the estate. I can’t remember how much he earned from outside,” said Mrs Packiyam.

Mrs Packiyam and her family have now shifted from their former line house to a new cottage.

“The estate gave us 7 perches of land and Rs 20,000 and also roofing sheets to build our house,” she said.

Mrs T Letchumie, a tea plucker, said she has taken loans to renovate her house and to buy her daughter gold jewellery.

“Last month, I think, I got around Rs 6,000. I can get Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000 when there is work.  I have to repay a loan to renovate our house. I also put seettu to get gold jewellery for my daughter. Girls must have gold,” said Mrs Letchumie.

Mrs L Krishnaveni, another tea plucker, said she and her husband can earn up to Rs 20,000 when they pool their wages.

“I got Rs 5,900 last month. It would have been more, but I have a loan to pay back. My husband also works here. We can get about Rs 20,000 when there is work,” she said.

Despite the differences of opinion about wages, Balangoda Estate says its welfare and awareness programmes will continue in the future, to help estate communities improve their quality of life.