The Planters’ Association of Ceylon (PA) commended exhaustive measures taken by Regional Plantation Companies (RPC) in partnership with Government and health authorities to minimize the risk of COVID-19 being transmitted into estate communities, and urged strict and continuous vigilance moving forward.
Operations on RPC estates were halted on 13th March 2020 in compliance following the Government’s direction to all citizens to work from home and avoid public places, and the subsequent declaration of curfew on 20th March 2020.
Since then, RPC estate managers and their teams of employees have been working in close partnership with health authorities and regional officers of the Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT) in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among estate communities.
Existing lines of communications between Government, management and workers were immediately deployed to raise the alarm and educate workers and estate community members on all safety measures to be implemented.
“Contrary to what some small trade unions have been falsely claiming in local and international media, the response against COVID-19 in the plantation sector has been unprecedented and exhaustive. Upon the formation of a Plantation Task Force to combat the spread of this virus, the plantation sector was the very first to jump into action. All stakeholders rallied around Government authorities to support health officials and safeguard estate communities in every way possible. A great deal has been accomplished in a very short time and we are extremely grateful for the support provided by the Government, the RPCs, and especially the estate communities themselves in abiding by all directives.
“Throughout, health and law enforcement officials together with RPC employees have been working tirelessly to safeguard the RPC workforce of approximately 135,000 as well as the wider estate community of more than 1 million individuals. The risks created by this pandemic are not expected to abate in the near future hence we must remain absolutely vigilant, and RPCs will of course continue to strictly adhere to all Government directives and take every possible measure to protect these communities moving forward,” PA Chairman, Sunil Poholiyadde stated.
Bolstering hygiene standards, access to soap, protective masks
Within a span of 4 days all stakeholders held high level completed discussions and immediately rolled out a series of measures intended first and foremost to safeguard health. These measures included the commencement of systematic hand sanitation, with regular reminders being provided to maintain strict hygiene and avoid touching of the face with unwashed hands, including the posting of notices with reminders on health and hygiene practices in all languages.
Special funds were raised by the Ministry of Community Empowerment and Estate Infrastructure Development and the Government specifically to supply soap and sanitizers directly to estate sector communities free of charge.
Meanwhile, all staff and worker dwellings, as well as factory premises have been sprayed with disinfectant and will be continuously disinfected on a regular basis either utilising Regional Plantation Companies (RPC) resources or working in collaboration with PHDT representatives and other Government authorities.
All workers were issued protective masks from existing stockpiles, or from repurposed materials where there was an immediate shortage of masks. Similarly, strict social distancing has been enforced at all times including during operations in the field, factories, and within residential and public areas in the estates themselves.
The PA noted that there had been some instances workers and estate community members have been compelled to resort to improvised masks owing to shortages of such equipment in the region, the association reiterated that in every possible instance, RPCs have issued protective masks to employees and provided detailed instructions on their proper use, with some RPCs taking the extra measure of manufacturing masks within their own factories in order to address immediate shortfalls in supply. All masks provided to workers and estate communities have been provided free of charge.
These steps were taken from around the 20th of March 2020, despite wearing of face masks becoming mandatory from 11th April 2020.
Registration, safeguards, logistical and material support for estate returnees
Following the Government declaration of the Plantations sector as an essential service, operations were resumed within 4 days having implemented all safety measures as directed by the health officials.
Notably, the declaration of the plantation sector as an essential service was made in recognition of the dire need to ensure that the industry – which was already facing serious difficulties – is able to function in order to be able to provide employees with a source of income while ensuring that the country is able to continue exports of tea in order to earn critical foreign exchange during this volatile period in time.
As the situation progressed, another key concern for officials became the risk of transmission resulting from those returning to the estates – primarily youth who had migrated out of the estates in search of work in Colombo and overseas. Most notably, the estate communities received an influx of over 700 individuals who were had returned from countries like Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern nations, and even a few returnees from Italy and other EU nations.
An additional 7,000 individuals had returned to the estates from Colombo and other parts of the island. In each and every instance, all returnees were successfully registered with records being taken of their travel histories, before being placed in quarantine, which had been specially established during the 4 day gap in operations. Only once these initial safety protocols had been cleared were returnees allowed to enter the estates and enter into lockdown with the rest of the community.
The registration process established by the plantation sector generated large amounts of useful data on the movement of individuals during the pandemic. These efforts have provided vital information for current and future efforts on contact tracing and the wider national mobilisation against COVID-19.
Supply of food and basic essentials
Ably supported by Government officials, each RPC ensured that the supply of essential food and rations remains uninterrupted through the crisis. These measures included the provision of interest free loans raised by using Ministry funds and RPC funds to generate Rs. 200 million which was utilized solely for issuing dry rations directly to the estate communities. These rations included rice, lentils, flour and several other essentials.
In the weeks that have followed, a further 2 issues of dry rations have been provided to the sector – at a total of Rs. 400 million – through the Estate Cooperative shops at subsidized rates. Crucially, these supplies and prices are available to all 135,000 of the RPC workforce as well as the entire 1 million plus community – including those who have returned from Colombo and overseas.
Special measures have also been taken in partnership with Government authorities to deliver rations directly to the estates, in order to avoid situations where community members would have otherwise been forced to stand in long queues. The support of state retailer CWE and was obtained in order to ensure these supplies reached estate communities in a timely fashion.
In addition to these supplies, the Government also mobilized local authorities in order to issue a Rs. 5,000 payment to each estate household and these payments despite several logistical challenges.
Remarkably, RPCs and the PHDT by early April, the PHDT and RPCs were also made aware of several other youth from the estate community who had become stranded in Colombo without food or money as their employers had closed up operations and left them to fend for themselves in cramped employee dormitories.
Here too, special intervention was made by the Ministry of Community Empowerment and Estate infrastructure Development with the support of the Western Province Governor to provide these individuals with supplies for the duration of the curfew period.
The PA and its members will also continue to carefully monitor the situation as it develops, and will be ready to implement any further directives issued by the Government and health authorities on an urgent and immediate basis.