Plantation people under the radar

Weekender

Words and pictures By TONY PALME
SATURDAY, Jan 27, in Banz, Jiwaka, is the time and place I will remember as the most emotional moment of my career as a journalist.
Most times on our news rounds, we cover events or write stories about MPs making commitments, and people making speeches about church programmes, ground breaking ceremonies, launchings, charity organisations, sports and business.
But this story is the one I will treasure as the highlight of my career. This story is about plantation labourers most commonly referred to as ‘plantation boy’.
I was invited to cover the opening of the Papua New Guinea Agricultural Sector Labourers’ Association (PNGASLA) office in Banz town.
Sitting there on a bench among the plantation workers (association members) in traditional attire, who came in truckloads from coffee plantations in Kimil, Bunum Wo and Sigri, while speeches were made, I was deep in thought on what to write.
To start the programme, children from the plantations lined up to sing the national anthem.
I was not the only one shedding tears as everywhere I looked, I could see several people unable to hold back when the children sang. It was during this moment that ideas started to flood my mind.
I did not know which part of the song made them feel so emotional but for me, it was the last part which says ‘we’re independent and we’re free, Papua New Guinea’.
I thought why are these children and parents suffering in poverty when they are independent and free?
Are they truly independent and free? Do they have a government which they can proudly call as government by the people and for the people?
These children were born in the plantations. They are the third-generation children. Their grandfathers came before independence to work on the tea and coffee plantations in Waghi Valley.
The struggles and pains that they endure every day for the last 40-50 years is not like the struggles faced by ordinary Papua New Guineans in the villages.
I felt a pang of guilt crept inside me because these very people have helped to build the economy of Jiwaka, Western Highlands and Papua New Guinea, yet they have never received any credit.
The credit always goes back to the companies or employer they work for. They are less important. Mere labourers.
Plantation labourers are the forgotten citizens of this country. They labour day and night just to earn a wage ranging from K70-K300 a fortnight.
I heard some of the shortest speeches made by the workers themselves, as they testified of the struggles they faced every day in the harsh working perimeters of the plantations for years.
Some said it was the first time in their life to hold a microphone, and with nervous feelings, they expressed the deep emotions that they had kept for decades.
Association director Gugl Peter Sylvester summarised what the other speakers said when he reiterated that they want to erase the name ‘plantation boi’.
“We are Papua New Guinean citizens. We are taxpayers to the Government. We have voted leaders yet they never recognise us,” he said.
“We have rights to education, good health, good housing and the means to participate in economic activities.
“At the plantations that we live in, we have no land to grow food or build houses. We cannot pay our children’s school fees. Our children only reach Grade 10 or 12 but cannot continue to universities or colleges.
“I am a lucky plantation boy. I am now a teacher. As a public servant, I want to help my people. That’s why we started this association at Bunum Wo coffee plantation.
“I am thankful to the management of WRC for their understanding to allow us to form this group. We are not like a workers’ union that try to go against the company. We are only trying to improve our lives in the plantations and make it a better place for us to live and work.”
He said workers from the plantations come from Chimbu, Eastern Highlands, Southern Highlands, Hela, Enga, Western Highlands, Jiwaka and others from the coastal region.
“We are uniting for a better and improved living standard. We will increase our membership to plantations in other provinces. We are starting in Jiwaka,” Sylvester said.
“We are calling on our four local MPs from Jiwakaand the national government to look into our needs. Plantations are our home.”
The vision of the association is to find happiness and life’s fulfilment during and after being a ‘plantation boi’.
The mission is for all to work together to:

  • Have their basic rights secured;
  • cater for their social security and welfare;
  • Receive proper education for themselves and their family; and,
  • Find investments opportunities to enhance their financial security in order to add value to the name ‘plantation boi’.

Women’s spokesperson Sabina Kuk said they faced so much hardships in the plantations and the association was answer to their prayers.
“We hope that through this group, the government can address our needs. As citizens, we must enjoy the same privileges that other citizens have. We have been deprived these rights for so long,” Kuk said.
Factory manager Clement Kuk said the company had realised that the formation of the association was not a threat to them but an avenue to improve the working environment for increased productivity.
Banz businessman James Alu has lent his building to the association to accommodate its office.
Alu said this was the first time that he had witnessed plantation labourers uniting to improve the kind of lifestyles that they have been living for generations.
“These people are the backbone of the agriculture sector. We see them as not important and dirty looking, but they are the most important workforce of the country. The government has a responsibility to cater for their welfare,” Alu said.
I was given an opportunity to speak my mind during the event. I shared similar sentiments like the other guests and admitted that the government should have a plan for these group of people – the money makers of the nation.
As long as the agriculture sector remains the backbone of this country, labour workforce will still be around.
Gold, copper, oil and gas, and other non-renewable resources will be gone one day but labourers and farmers will continue to be the driving force for the agriculture sector and the Government needs to come up with a long-term plan for them

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