The Labour Monthly

Immigrant Plantation Labour in Ceylon

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 19, August 1937, No. 8, pp. 503-506, (1,873 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
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[In the July issue of the LABOUR MONTHLY we published an article entitle, For Socialism in Ceylon, a statement submitted to the Conference on Socialise; in India and Ceylon held in London, June, 1937. This month we print a further informative statement submitted on the same occasion.]

The term plantation labour refers to Indian workers imported into Ceylon by direct Government supervision under the special Immigrant Labour Ordinances.

According to the Government statistics of 1935 there are about 775,000 men, women and children who are controlled by these ordinances. They form about 17 per cent. of the whole population. They are by law treated as aliens who have no right of asylum in Ceylon except when under a contract to work in the tea and rubber plantations. It is a penal offence for them to remain in Ceylon if they are unable to find employment as immigrant labourers in registered estates.

Over 50 per cent, of these labourers were born in Ceylon and have lived there for two or three generations and have lost all connection with their homes in India. Yet the moment they are discharged from the estates they are put under arrest by the police and sent to a detention camp for what is called compulsory repatriation in India.

Ninety-five per cent. of the 557,000 acres of tea in Ceylon are worked by this system of labour and about 85 per cent. of the plantations are owned by the British. The British Co-operative Wholesale Society is one of the biggest owners. Tea forms over 60 per cent. of the total value of the export trade of Ceylon. Apart from the ownership of the commodity itself, British interests have the monopoly of the shipping trade and financing of the tea industry. In addition to this, about 60 per cent. of the rubber plantations are owned by British capital and are largely worked by Indian labour.

The starting point of the system of the Indian Immigrant labour was the abolition of slavery in 1833 which prevented the opening up of estates by feudal slavery. From the employers’ point of view this new system was more profitable and more efficient than the employment of African slaves could have been and from the labourer’s point of view equally degrading and sometimes more inhumanely cruel than slavery.

Indian Nationalists started an agitation against this new institution of slavery and roused the indignation of all liberal elements. In 1839 the British Government was compelled to ban Indian immigration. But the pressure from the British capitalists was too powerful for the spirit of liberalism and in 1847 the ban was lifted, and the traffic in human lives restarted. South Africa, Mauritius, West India, Malaya and Ceylon were the countries which imported most of this labour. Again after prolonged agitation by Indian Nationalists the Indian Government was compelled to legislate on behalf of Indian immigrants and the Immigration Act of India of 1922 came into force. By this act “Immigration was unlawful except to such countries and on such terms and conditions as are laid down by the Government of India.”

The machinery of the Ceylon and the Indian Governments are working very effectively to supply the plantations with an unlimited supply of able-bodied men and women for the estates. The chief recruiting agent is appointed by the Ceylon Government and his headquarters are at Trichinopoly in South India, the centre for this human traffic.

He has his four assistants at Salmi, Vellore, Mandapam and Trichinopoly. Two quarantine camps are established at the Indian ports from which this human merchandise is shipped to Ceylon. The main function of the Medical officers at these camps is to select the able-bodied and their families and to reject the sick and infirm. These men and women are collected by paid agents, the Kanganis, who act on a commission basis. A money advance to defray the cost of the bare needs during the journey and liberal promises of quick reward are sufficient to entice these poverty-stricken peasants to leave their homes in search of work. Being victims of British imperialism and driven into desperation through starvation, these peasants become a ready prey to the unscrupulous Kangani.

In 1934, 140,607 of these peasants were imported to Ceylon and in 1935, 43,018. Permits are issued by the Ceylon Government for the recruitment on application by the employers’ organisation. The labourers have to enter into a monthly contract of service which in practice means they are daily paid labourers who receive their wages once in four or six weeks. The labourer must give a month’s notice before he leaves the estate. The breach of this contract by the labourer is a penal offence. The employer can expel a labourer from the estate without notice on payment of a month’s wage. The planters have devised a very efficient system to keep the labourers in virtual slavery by the Discharge Certificate System which was introduced to replace the less efficient Tundu system. No employer who is a party to this agreement is at liberty to employ a labourer who does not produce a Discharge Certificate or comes from an estate which is not a party to this agreement. This is a convention among the planters and has received the indirect sanction of law. Perhaps the best comment on the practice is in the annual report of the European Planters’ Association for 1933. It states that:

The Discharge Certificate agreement, though excellent in principle, proved to be open to abuse which could not be controlled . . . . This Agreement was undoubtedly being made use of by the Kanganis as security against money advanced to labourers and the evils of the old advance system threatened to reappear.

Thus it will be seen that although the labourer is free from arrest for debt, and his freedom of movement was protected in 1921 when the Tundu system was abolished, he is still in bondage.

The official witness before the Royal Commission of labour stated that “The Indian labourer is born in debt, lives in debt and dies in debt.”


The minimum wage fixed by law for Immigrant labourers is 40 cents. or 7d. a day for an adult and 26 cents. or 4d. a day for a child on an 8-hour day. The employer is also compelled by law to give employment on six days in the week as the calculations were on the basis that all the members of the average family were wage earners who worked six days in the week. For the purpose of fixing the minimum wage the family budget was prepared by the Director of Statistics, the Controller of Labour and the Agent of the Government of India, all high officials, the first two, being Europeans and the third an Indian Civil servant. All luxuries were excluded from this Budget for no provision is made for toddy, the local beer, and tobacco, although several estates have liquor taverns established by special permission in areas where prohibition by local option exists. Plenty of rice is provided for in the budget but of meat there is but half-a-pound a month as well as three-halfpenny worth of vegetables. For clothing one shilling is allowed and this he is almost compelled to spend on British cloth as the unlimited importation of cheap foreign cloth is prohibited by Whitehall. In 1930 this budget estimate was reduced by 17 per cent. and the minimum wage reduced accordingly.

The gross inadequacy of the minimum wage when compared with the cost of living can be realised by the fact that the daily wage of a labourer in 1850 was the same as in 1937, when the cost of living was several hundred per cent. lower. Outrageous as this minimum wage is, in actual fact the labourer’s monthly earnings are far below it. In his official report for 1935 the Indian Agent states: “Though the employers are obliged by law to give work for six days in the week to labourers on estates, no action was taken against employers who could not give work to the labourers for a sufficient number of days in the week. Till about November many estates were able to provide only three or four days’ work in the week.”

The per capita rate paid to the Kangani called. the pence money which amounts to about ¾d. a day has to come out from the 7d. wage. As the labourer is paid their starvation wage only once in about six weeks, they are compelled to buy their food and other necessities on credit. While the minimum wage has in actual practice only worked out as the maximum wage, the maximum price at which the employer was compelled to supply rice to the labourers has remained at the minimum price. In many estates the labourers are compelled to buy their rice from the estate al Rs.4.80 a bushel, while the same could be bought at Rs.2 in the open market. Thus the estate profiteers on the food of the labourers by over 100 per cent.


Indian labourers have no rights in local Government matters, but they enjoy in theory full adult franchise for the State Council elections. The social and economic conditions under which they live, however, make them so dependent on the employers that free exercise of their political rights has resulted in the worst forms of persecution.

At the last State Council elections, two of the labourer’s own representatives from the intelligentsia were returned by large majorities in two constituencies which almost entirely consist of Indian labourers, Two European planters contested them. Coercive methods were openly employed by the planters, but in spite of all the terrorism the labourer made use of the secret ballot with a surprising degree of courage and political wisdom. The two candidates were not allowed to enter the estates to canvas. One of them was unable to rent out an office anywhere in the constituency. He slept in his car and all his election campaign work was done by the roadside. Even up to this day, a year after the election, this member has not been able to rent an office room in the chief town in his constituency and is not allowed to visit the labourer in their homes.

The employers are very efficiently organised. The Planters’ Association, with the Governor as patron, control the Government policy with regard to the employer. The European business houses in Colombo act as the agents for the proprietors in England. These business houses have the full monopoly of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. The Ceylon Association in London, an exclusively European body which represents the British vested interests in Ceylon, controls policy through the Colonial office in Whitehall. The European planters are a highly organised military body. The Planters’ Rifle Corps are exclusively British units in the Ceylon Defence Force. Ceylonese are excluded or racial grounds although the total cost of training and maintenance is born by the Ceylon Government.

The labourers, on the other hand, have no organisation whatsoever Any attempt to organise them is crushed by the employers and the whole machinery of government is invoked to prevent labourers from organising themselves.