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No Hands Needed
Machines Putting Rice Harvest Labourers Out Of Work

The mechanization of rice harvesting has been good for the owners of Sri Lankan paddy fields. But it’s been a disaster for the locals who used to do the manual labour.

22.08.2016  |  
Manual labour in a Sri Lankan rice field.(Source: Peter van der Sluijs / Wikimedia Commons)

The older man caresses the rice plant, one of hundreds flourishing in the damp, rich green paddy fields, in which he is standing. Athambawa, 65, breathes deeply, taking in the smell of the wet ground and the rice plants, then exhales. With his breath, comes a rush of memories.

“We used to live off this work for a whole year,” says the tall, lean local, who is from Nintavur in the Ampara district in south eastern Sri Lanka; fishing and agriculture are the main occupations here.

Our lives are at a standstill.

Groups of 15 to 20 paddy field workers would get together to negotiate with the owners of the fields, explains the local man who preferred not to give his full name.

“We used to charge between LKR4,500 to LKR5,000 [around EUR30] to harvest one acre. When the harvest season started we would have work every day, and income for two months.”

After the harvesting was done, the labourers would move onto threshing work.

“Our pay during those months would be saved and it would support us for the whole year,” says Athambawa. “But today things are completely different. Machines are being used for everything on the rice harvest. And we find it very difficult to earn enough money. And this is not only about me, it’s about thousands of people like me too, who also depended on harvesting work.”

When rice paddies were first planted in Sri Lanka, a lot of manual labour was required to harvest the grain. But over the past decade this has changed a lot.

“According to the seasonal surveys of the [Sri Lanka] Department of Agriculture there has been a reduction in total labour usage in rice cultivation, in all agricultural districts. The use of hired labour in rice cultivation shows a proportionate reduction and this indicates the lowering of demand for hired labour. This reduction may be attributed to farm mechanization, farmers’ response to increasing wage rate and decreasing real producer prices,” writes Kamal Karunagoda, of the Department of Agriculture, in Peradeniya, in a report, Changes in Labour Market and Domestic Agriculture.

The report shows that labour days per acre in rice cultivation have fallen from 337 for all Sri Lankan districts during harvest season in 1990 and 1991, to 246 in 2000 and 2001.

Since then things have gotten worse, the labourers say. The owners of the rice paddies seem to have forgotten all about the manual workers now, men like Athambawa. Our lives are at a standstill, says the local man who now makes minimal wages by stacking store shelves.