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Sri Lanka's Maskeliya to mechanise tea estates

19 Jul, 2008 14:18:38

July 19, 2008 (LBO) - Sri Lanka's Maskeliya Plantations is planning to introduce more mechanisation in its tea fields and factories to reduce dependence on a costly and troublesome labour force.

The company has changed planting methods to make mechanised harvesting easier in the future, Maskeliya Plantations chairman Sena Yaddehige has said. The company, part of the Richard Pieris group, makes almost nine million kilos of black tea, or 12.5 percent of national production in the high grown elevation.

"As a mode of reducing our dependence on a large and costly labour force we're in the process of mechanising various agricultural as well as factory practices for greater efficiency," Yaddehige told shareholders in his annual report.

Planting density and patterns have been changed to facilitate eventual mechanical harvesting, the report said.

Sri Lanka's tea industry has long complained of low productivity among tea pluckers who pluck the green leaf. Various experiments have been made with mechanical harvesting machines to improve yield.

Maskeliya has some of the oldest tea bushes in the business, one of the reasons for low yields apart from poor labour productivity. To mitigate the long-term effect of debility and low production, the company has re-commenced replanting at the recommended scales, the report said.

Yaddehige called for a long term strategy for the industry to link productivity to wage hikes. "It is unfortunate that the plantation companies have yet not been able to link wages to employee productivity." Maskeliya Plantations has introduced incentive schemes to motivate workers and improve productivity. Wage costs on Sri Lanka's tea estates are the highest among major tea exporters.

The industry is also plagued with problems caused by the highly unionised and politicised labour force. A month-long strike by unions demanding higher wages in December 2006 crippled tea plantations, which took months to recover.

The extra wage costs have also been a burden on company finances and only a sharp increase in tea prices in recent months have helped the firms cope with the higher wages. Yaddehige said Maskeliya Plantations had to spend an extra 150 million rupees in wages after the 'unscheduled' wage hike wrested by unions in 2006.

He also said the company has changed manufacture to make 'leafy' grades of tea that are now much in demand and fetch high prices.

Uppdaterad 2008-07-19

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