Persecuted by language: Estate workers denied hard earned EPF
Poonagala is an Estate in haldummulla divisional secretariat of Badulla district. Despite the blinding sceneries in the area, people living in Poonagala are also experiencing the same fate as the other plantation worker communities in the up country, revealing the harsh nature of the life they leading beneath the veil of scenic beauty.
Exploitation of plantation workers has been consistent throughout the years and they have been struggling for their rights since a long time. With their rights denied, the plantation workers have been in a constant wrestle with the authorities for years to overcome the distress they have been facing.
Living under the shadow of estate companies, lives being manipulated by the employers and shedding their best years working in the Estate fields, the only flame of hope they have towards the end of their careers is the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF).
These Estate Employers have no urge to pay the innocent people pouring sweat in the estates, what they deserve by the right.
Plantation workers in Poonagala are struggling to keep their lives moving forward with a countless number of hardships. They have been mistreated by the authorities for years, leaving them forsaken as many of the rights they are entitled to such as infrastructure, education, healthcare etc. have been neglected.
Many elderly retired plantation workers in the Poonagala Estate have had to face many difficulties when securing their EPF.
The EPF ; Workers’ compensation upon retirement and the Legal Background.
According to the EPF Act, a minimum of 8% is deducted from the basic salary of an employee and the employer pays 3% on behalf of the employee for the Employees’ Trust Fund. Employee’s EPF balance keeps growing as employee mature at their working environment as the cumulative balance in their EPF account, which is maintained by the Central Bank, and is invested in Treasury Bills, Treasury Bonds, Equity and Corporate Debentures etc. Depending on the rate of return, an annual interest rate is declared and credited to employee’s account. The Employee’s investment can be retrieved with the interest over time upon their retirement, thus ensuring a huge sum for a peaceful retirement for the employees.
Most of the plantation workers in Poonagala Division 1 are Tamils, thus Tamil has ended up being their main tongue. Only a very few people here are familiar with Sinhala, which is the most commonly used language used for documentations in this matter.
Having little knowledge in Sinhala, many details in these documentation processes are done with minor errors due to the complications in the language, which have proven to be fatal years later when trying to retrieve their ETF.
Explaining the hardships the plantation workers experience due to this complexities in the language, Viswanadan (45) said that only a few people in Poonagala Division 1 are familiar with Sinhala and most of them too cannot read or write Sinhala.
“These people are not familiar with Sinhala language. Only a few are used to it and they too cannot read or write Sinhala properly. So they have to seek the aid of someone else all the time, whenever they need to fill any document in Sinhala. Most of the documents needed to get this EPF are in Sinhala. Since they are filled by someone else, confusions have had happened and because of that, there are many people who are yet to get their EPF, even after years since their retirement. Many have passed away also even without retrieving their EPF.”
Vinothaseelan (36) from Poonagala 1st Division also said that their elderly community is upon heavy distress when it comes to the EPF issue, since they have no way of make living after draining themselves for the plantation companies. He further said that the language barrier plays a huge role there.
“The ID given by the Estate Company for the workers is in Tamil. When it comes to filling the B card in EPF procedure, it is done in Sinhala. There the worker’s name has been misspelled in many occasions, thus posing a cliff between them and their EPF. Many people living here do not have a clear idea of these documentations and such things go unnoticed most the time. And it’s only when they get to know the mistake they have made, when trying to get the EPF upon their retirement.”
P. Punyaseela (25) is a mother of one, said that both her parents have not received their EPF even after years from their retirement, due to a misspelling that occurred when filling her father’s documents for EPF.
“My father Perumal Sivagnanam (65) had been a plantation worker for this Poonagala Estate for years. And my mother, who is 70 years old now had been a plantation worker since she was 13. My father is yet to get his EPF since there has been a mis-spell in his B card as ‘Sivagnamam.’ We have to go to the Central Bank in Nuwara Eliya to make it right by taking an affidavit here and it’s been nearly impossible since my father is ill and too weak to take to Nuwara Eliya.”
Another hurdle they have to cross when continuing for their well-deserved compensation is dealing with the faded, worn out and lost documents.
“As I told earlier, my mother had been a plantation worker since she was a little girl and we still couldn’t get her EPF since we have lost all her documents of identification except for the Estate ID which is not enough to receive the EPF. She has too been ill for a long time. It takes quite a money to buy medications for them. We can’t afford for them any longer. If we could get their provident funds, it would have helped us a lot.” Punyaseela continued.
We met another case, where the EPF holder had died even before he could retrieve his compensation upon retirement.
“My father had been a plantation worker for this Poonagala Estate for years. He died 10 years ago, even without retrieving his EPF. After his demise, we went to the Central Bank in Nuwara Eliya and it was a dead end since we had lost his documents related to that procedure. No one directs us the right path to take hold of my father’s EPF.”
Shortcomings in the Estate Management
The plantation worker community in Poonagala Division 1 complains that the Poonagala Estate management holds the responsibility for their life condition today.
They allege that the Estate management has done absolutely nothing, even though they deduct a welfare fee from the salaries of the employees.
“Every month, the management deducts from our salary, a welfare fee. People have no idea what is that for since they do absolutely nothing about our welfare. 10 years ago, there were specially deployed groups to clean the streets, to remove garbage, to disinfect the area from diseases and mosquitoes. We had a well maintained drainage system and those were good times. Now today there is nobody to clear the overgrowth, our lives are in danger since the area is inhabitant with many poisonous serpents. People have no idea what happens to their welfare fees,” Viswanadan added.
He further said that the Estate management does not care for the people and that when workers go the estate office to get some work done, they are not served a chair at least to sit, discriminating the innocent workers who sacrifice years of their life in the Estate fields.
Meet Karupaiya Padmanadan (59) who alleges that his wife could not retrieve the full EPF amount of his wife (63) due to the irresponsibility of the Estate management.
He told with MediaLK that his wife received only a part of her total EPF.
“She worked as a plantation worker from 1990 to 1997. In 1994, she shifted from her previous Estate to the Poonagala Estate. She could only get her EPF from 1994 to 1997. They told us that she cannot get her EPF for the previous years due to an error in documentation process. They told us that there should be some sort of an employer id mentioned in the B card if she had worked for another estate prior to Poonagala Estate. The estate filled those for us since we do not understand those. It’s quite a big deal for us if there is any way to get her EPF for those years.”
Our efforts to contact the Director of the Employers’ Association, Vajira Ellepola to inquire about this far reached issue and the steps taken by the union to aid the plantation workers, were unsuccessful.
“EPF in two weeks if there is no errors in documents”
When inquired, the Commissioner General of Labour Department, Mr. B.K. Prabath Chandrakeerthi told with Medialk that the EPF can be granted to anyone within two weeks if there is zero errors in the documents.
“One can apply to retrieve his/her EPF upon the retirement at age 55 and as soon as they submit their papers, we will direct them to the Central Bank and if there are no errors in the documents, the EPF can be granted within two weeks.
For that, one needs to have the NIC and the documents to prove that he/she has worked in the particular company. Those documents are enough to get the EPF, it’s okay even if your B card is lost.”