Know your UNION
History of Ceylon Estate Staffs' Union (CESU)
Coffee Blight has won! By middle of the 18th Century, all efforts to save coffee
industry from a blight attack became futile as all preventive measures and curative
action taken were ineffective and, one by one, coffee estates were closing down.
Plantation owners and workers were in a quandary alike. Workers included the Staff as
James Taylor and the party have been experimenting with a medicinal bush from Chinese jungles called “TEA’ and reports are heart-warming . The trials have proved very much better results than expected and investors uncrossed their fingers and are once more getting ready to put their money in the new product. Head Kangany is very busy, getting down his kith and kin to work in these new estates and augment his gang and enhance his ‘pence’ money collection. It is princely sum-one cent per working day from each of his workers – Dorai is now happy as he is having his men and tea is growing beautifully in virgin soil. With the advent of new immigrant regulations and more methodical record keeping, a new generation was growing on estates, called Estates Staff. Top of the list is the ‘Head Clerk” He is second in command and advisor to the Dorai. He keeps accounts, draws up programms, prepare estimates and above all is responsible for recruitment of fellow staff. Then comes, the ‘Doctor’ who is solely responsible for health of the entire population of the estate. In fact there was a special course in the medical council for this category of staff known as ‘Estate Dispensers’. He is highly respected by the workers and always ready to visit the sick at anytime of the day or night! Next in command is the ‘Tea Maker’ who is reining in the factory. Finally, the good old ‘Conductor’ one who is dealing with the manual workers and responsible for field operations. Into these four main categories, minor staff have been co-opted and they are (a) Engine Driver who knows anything and everything on engineering, may be a huge Ruston Hornsby Engine running non-stop throughout the year, DC Generator or cranking telephone, (b) The driver, who is very proud of his petrol lorry, which he keeps so clean and beautiful (c) And there is all important women - perhaps only women member of the staff then – ‘Midwife’ She has not graduated from a medical college but has learnt the art of child delivery in the traditional form and is among the
most wanted employee category. She not only attends to human deliveries but sometimes called upon to handle a tricky situation when a cow in labour and has complication in the delivery! In the early days, the first four categories were treated as estate staffs and they were a exclusive band and the minor staff were not included in the staff pay roll or similar records. In late 1919 and early 1920, there were lively activities on almost all estates in and around Kandy, Matale, Hewaheta, Kelani Valley and Kurunegala – which were major planting districts then. There were parties at the Head Clerk’s and clerks’ bungalows and many estate staffs from neighboring estates were partaking . Speculations were rife then that some radical change is in the offing and all were waiting with awe for the outcome.
Hopes and aspirations of group of people are the root cause for birth of voluntary organizations. Such necessity began to enter the minds of the estates staff and came to a head when suppression and unfair labour practices began to invade administrative territory of estates.
D-day was 29th August 1920, dressed in their Sunday best, the Estates Staff began to arrive, led by their Head Clerks and by mid morning, gathering was much more than expected. For the first time in the annals of the history of estates, a meeting of the staff was held to orchestra their cause on this day and formed themselves into an association decreed as ‘ Estates Staffs Association of Ceylon’ This militant move was the first step taken by estates staffs to stand as a united body and began its long journey. ‘Gentleman’ gravel voice of C W de Soysa echoed.’ I call the house into order’ History was thus created and the proceedings began. Like Mark Anthony, Soysa spelled out the cause and the case of estates staff and need for them to stand together. He has reportedly said that ‘this small move will grow into a giant moment in future, and what prophecy it has been! Central hill boomed, echoed and was heard all over the planting districts of Ceylon and soon getting into the front page columns of the newspapers.
C.W.de Soysa was elected as the first President of the Estates Staffs’ Association of Ceylon and K.B.Chary was elected as the Secretary. The elections were unanimous and had the fullest confidence of the rank and file. Apart from C.W.de Soysa, K.R.Chary was a leading figures in these inaugural sessions and they were joined by Clement de Silva, Alfred Wijesinghe, A.M.Jumat,
J.C.P. Amarasinghe, Edmund Fernando, Soloman de Silva, Arthur Ferdinando, D.T.Waragoda, M.Rasairo, S.J.Silas R.W.Jacob, Henry F de Silva, Berty Jayasinghe, G.A.Perera, J.M.Dawson, A.K.Velupillai, L.B.Jayasena, E.G.Malhamy, E.R.Wijeratne and host of others.
The first office was housed in Kandy and operated with volunteers and was well supported by the elected officials. Few years after the inauguration, the Estates Staffs’ Association of Ceylon was incorporated by an Act of Parliament . Employers did not object to the formation of the ESAC and on the contrary, encouragement and the assistance were forthcoming from them. The key for this attitude was due to the fair and reasonable approach of the Association. They preferred the tool of persuasion instead of aggressive eye for an eye philosophy.
Estates Staff were playing a major role in the operations of estates and the companies had no alternative but to accept them as part and parcel ingredient of management structure. Association was able to win dignity and security for its members and was focusing on thrift and savings. Planters group in Pussellawa planting district gave the first signal of support for this move and the result was the establishment of the Estates Staffs’ Provident Society. Long before the EPF Act came into being, estates staff is one of few employee-groups in the Island who had this social security system. With the enactment of the Trade Union Ordinance, the Estates Staffs’ Association of Ceylon was registered as a Trade Union – CEYLON ESTATES STAFFS’ UNION (Reg. No. 132) The first President of CESU was E.W.A.de Silva and Secretary was L.B.Jayasena, A.K.Velupillai was installed as full-time Treasurer of the Union. Another significant achievement is moving into own office at 13, Kande Vidiya, Kandy. Tis was the cradle of the CESU for many years, before it was moved to the present site in Colombo, for administrative reasons. Of those who contributed voluntarily to purchase the present office at Aloe Avenue, only a very few are surviving and of the signatories to the deeps ofthe property only Comrade E.G. Ratnayake is among us. This is the most prudent investment made by our predecessors and we now work in comfort and dignity due to their foresight.
In 1948 Comrade E.G.Malhamy was elected as President of the CESU by an overwhelming majority, defeating two stalwarts, Berty Jayasinghe and F.B.Raymond , incidentally, the elections to the office of President and other posts were by popular vote. They travelled in gleaming Hillmans, Ford Prefects, Morris Minors, Peugeots and
even small Beatles and these were seen parked around Pushpadana Girls School Hall, where CESU Annual General Meetings were held. A popular Joke going around then was if there is a shortage of arrack in Kandy Town, there is a CESU meeting in the vicinity!
Soon after his election, Comrade Malhamy began to explore new avenues and break fresh grounds in the Trade Union field. It was possible to form joint Council, with the Ceylon Estates Employers’ Federation (CEEF) and this new body set about to eradicate the salary anomaly and first Conditions of Service was agreed between the CEEF and CESU on a Joint Council proposal. Soon after, these conditions of service, together with revised salary scales were incorporated in a Collective Agreement signed in 1951. Incidentally, this is the first collective agreement signed in the South East Asia according to experts. Comrade E.G.Malhamy held a record five Presidential terms, which is unmatched to date.
An incident during a Joint Council Meeting should be an example for present CEOs and the like to emulate. In the first Collective Agreement , the Clerical Staff was divided into four classes and 12 grades and few grades coming within one class. Under Class 4, there were three Grades. viz.10,11 and 12 and a Junior Assistant Clerk may be placed in any of the grades, at the discretion of the management, considering the volume and responsibilities allotted to the employee. There were few complaints of misusing this ‘discretionary powers’ by certain Superintendents and at the said meeting of the Joint Council, this matter was brought up by the CESU. Chairman of the CEEF/CESU Joint Council was Mr. Keneth Morford and he allowed this matter for debate and during the discussions, it was revealed that Union’s position was correct. The Chairman after making some inquiries from Senior Planters observed that ‘If one party with discretionary powers is abusing them, it is the integrity of the Council that suffers. Therefore he moved that the offending Class system be deleted, leaving only the grades and this was unanimously approved. That was the spirit in which the Joint Council operated; fair and fearless before the truth. They never tried to defend or shield a wrong doer.
With the introduction of Land Reform Law 2, the estates managed by Companies were vested in the SLSPC and JEDB and the CESU activities continued on much slow pace but held its voice as the sole representative of the staff. Happenings since are relatively new and known to the present generation and will be dealt with in another article.