The first white van

By Emil van der Poorten
Whatever is said about life around these parts, “dull” and “mundane” would not be adjectives that one would apply to our existences!
A couple of weeks ago, we had a helicopter “buzz” our home.  Now, considering we are not even on a flight path of some crop-dusting aircraft, that was a bit of a thrill, even though it was something disconcerting enough that we would far rather have done without the rolling thunder that came close to touching our roof and then disappeared by the time we had gathered our wits and come out to see what the hell all the noise was about!
Then a few afternoons ago we had our most recent bit of excitement at the time when, in my efforts not to have an afternoon nap and thereby try to sleep through the 4:00 am wake-up call to prayer from a neighbouring mosque and its peacefully co-existing Buddhist temple, I was rattling away the afternoon at my laptop keyboard.
About mid-afternoon, I thought I heard a vehicle pull into our front yard and my suspicions were confirmed when I left my office space and walked on to the balcony which overlooks our “midula.”   My worst fears were not confirmed when I saw a work-saree-clad woman and a man in a tie disembark from a white van which the driver then proceeded to park (in very un-Sri Lankan style) so that it wouldn’t obstruct another vehicle seeking to reach us and would be ready for a quick getaway as well, it seemed.
The colour of the vehicle notwithstanding, I didn’t think that potential abductors would consist of saree-clad females and males with ties around their necks, so I was somewhat relieved at what I observed.  However, I subsequently learned that “the better half” and the domestic help were most perturbed by the thought that I was to enjoy my next ride in a motor vehicle the likes of which are synonymous with “disappearances.”  The fact that it was broad daylight, I learned, did not in any way assuage their fears because they believed that, like the proverbial “Mountie,” those who rode around in white vans always “got their man,” irrespective of what time it was and who was doing the “getting,” with or without a necktie and with or without female assistance!
Does “O Tempora, o mores” come to mind in the circumstances, apropos the state of Sri Lankan civilization and the prevailing climate with regard to that mythical (in Sri Lankan circumstances) “Rule of Law?”
In any event, it transpired that I was victim of a lesser plot in that I was accused of not paying those who worked for me and, if/when I did, it was sans contributions to such statutory benefits as the Employees’ Trust and Provident Funds (ETF & EPF).
I found this allegation particularly fascinating when I knew for a certainty that none of the adjoining “estates,” except one, was even paying minimum wage and the one who did required prodding from the Department of Labour to remit to the Central Bank the EPF and ETF deductions he had collected from his employees each month together with his own contribution!
Even more fascinating is the case of the head of a very large chain of retail clothing stores who runs a “Meditation Centre” operation and pays those who work on his project in basic foodstuffs.  Each month, each family is “gifted” rice, dhal, sugar and flour as payment for the work they do.  I was quite fascinated by this arrangement which appeared reminiscent of the “arrangements” in the cotton plantations of the Deep South of the USA before the civil war.  Perhaps, what was needed in our part of the world was not visits to the likes of me by senior functionaries of the Department of Labour, but an Abraham Lincoln to take out of serfdom some citizens of Sri Lanka living in abject poverty around here.
In terms of unorthodox “payment arrangements,” another I’ve encountered is a “crop sharing” set-up where a rubber tapper shares the latex he harvests with the owner of the trees who processes the tapper’s share into Ribbed Smoke Sheet, charging the tapper for the processing as well.  The entire calculation in this arrangement is made unilaterally by the owner of the rubber trees.  This arrangement seemed eerily similar to the mediaeval “Ande” arrangements that prevailed in paddy cultivation before Philip Gunewardene brought in the landmark reforms of his Paddy Lands Act in the late 1950’s or early 1960s.  Maybe this “share-cropping” is “progress” compared to payment in foodstuffs in the arrangement described earlier, reminiscent of the days of John Brown!
But, back to the narrative.
In fairness to the senior labour department official and his clerical help, it must be said that they conducted themselves in a completely professional manner and seemed to arrive at the conclusion that the land that I was seeking to rehabilitate with a “paying guest” operation and with crops exotic to the plantation sector in this part of the country, hardly qualified as a “rubber estate.”
I provided them with the records we maintain for EPF and ETF purposes and the attendance register from which those returns are derived.  I also pointed out that it has been an ongoing chore to keep correcting the EPF forms we get from that department, with numbers switched between employees from one month to the next, something that, if not corrected immediately, causes tremendous problems when the contributor tries to collect their money on retirement.  To my complaint that one particular individual had had particularly great hardship in her efforts to retrieve her EPF contributions, the official volunteered to try and sort out the confusion if I would send her to his office again with a note of introduction, explaining the circumstances.  This I promised to do in a final effort to cut through the red tape that this woman and another retired worker have encountered in their efforts to retrieve that which they have contributed over many years by, literally, the sweat of their brow.
I was also to send on our employment records to the Labour Department office where they would be further verified and corrective action, if any, indicated to us.  I must emphasize that my experience of this piece of labour administration has been nothing but positive up to now and both this current Assistant Commissioner of Labour and his predecessor have been nothing but competent and courteous at all times, a very pleasant exception to the jumped-up jackasses that seem to occupy so many positions of importance thanks to their political affiliations!
In a “good news, bad news” scenario, one could well charge to the “good news” end of the ledger the fact that two retired workers may now get back what they and their employer have contributed over their working lives and been used as collateral by the state, “lo these many years,” as the expression has it.  The “bad news” would certainly be the extreme consternation caused to those around me with an unannounced “white van” pulling into our compound not so long after an incident of what seems suspiciously like “helicopter intimidation!”


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