From factory to paddy field
Our story about Bata workers who lost their jobs after a strike taking up paddy farming is a heartening example of initiative and courage in the face of adversity. Whatever the merits or demerits of their dispute with Bata may be, these workers have not let their misfortune dampen their spirit. What is remarkable about their story is that these are trained and experienced industrial workers who have shed their factory overalls for the farmer’s loincloth in a complete change of jobs. Factory machines have been replaced by water buffaloes (see story inside). Of course, the transition from industry to agriculture might not have been all that difficult for these workers given that many of our workers live in rural areas or have agrarian roots.

These are times when examples abound of disgruntled or sacked workers becoming disruptive, and turning their wrath and frustration on their employers or society at large. Even gainfully employed workers are known to become destructive, sometimes even sabotaging their own workplaces. Our work forces and their unions have become so politicised that there are often hidden agendas behind workers’ agitation. Many union leaders are more keen to satisfy the desires of their political masters than to look after the rights of their fellow workers. The struggle for workers’ rights in general, and in specific industrial disputes in particular, are often split on political lines with political agendas taking precedence over workers’ concerns.

From the point of view of labour productivity, whether in agriculture or industry, our workers are often criticised for not keeping up with efficiency levels achieved by their Asian counterparts, and for being just plain lazy. Poor productivity is said to be one of the key reasons for our lack of competitiveness.

The productivity of our labour stands in sharp contrast to the protection offered to them under our archaic and twisted labour laws, which make it difficult to dismiss even dishonest and lazy employees. These are also times when discipline is sorely lacking in our society, from top to bottom; when crime is rampant and respect for authority either non-existent or rapidly on the decline.

The Open University and its Agriculture Engineering Faculty must be commended for the support they have given these workers. The workers’ parent labour union, the Commercial and Industrial Workers’ Union along with MONLAR (Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform) and the Movement for Protection of Indigenous Seeds also deserve praise in helping to turn the skills and energy of sacked workers into productive enterprise. It was the Open University that provided the Bata workers two months training in basic technology that is useful for small-scale farming.

Their support has meant 10 people, who might otherwise have become a few more statistics in our unemployment indicators, have acquired a new set of skills and are usefully employed. They are making use of nine acres of land in the Kalutara district that had been left fallow for the last nine years and had been covered with jungle and weeds. What is more, the type of agriculture they are practicing is not of the ordinary variety but rather, organic agriculture. The co-operative nature of their endeavour, as a mechanism for survival, also deserves to be commended.

The initiative shown by these former Bata employees provides a refreshing alternative to the usual course of action such workers are prone to adopt. These are people who are not content to join the ranks of the unemployed or sit back and gripe about their misfortune or depend on the largesse of others, as many are wont to do. Instead, they have taken their fate into their own hands, albeit with some help from others.

Back to Top  Back to Business  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.