MADURAGODA, SRI LANKA — It took a two-day hunger strike for 50 workers at a state-owned graphite mine to secure a risk allowance increase from 16 Sri Lankan rupees (11 cents) per month to 300 rupees ($2.06) per month. They agreed that they would receive the allowance if they met a target of producing 70 metric tons per month.
The next month, the workers exceeded their monthly target by producing 74 metric tons (81.57 short tons) of graphite, says Sunanda Fernando, secretary of the Free Employees Union at the mine. The increased risk allowance was added to each workers’ July pay.
Still, it’s a pittance compared to what the miners at the Kahatagaha mine could be earning if Sri Lanka’s graphite industry had more sophisticated technology and operated at a higher capacity. “We have heard that miners in other countries earn hundreds of thousands of rupees,” says Sunil Ekanayake, a 64-year-old assistant leader in the mine’s drilling section who has worked there since 1988. “But the Sri Lankan graphite doesn’t draw a high price and, as a result, we receive a low salary.”
Sri Lanka was a leading supplier of graphite during the colonial era, when the British Empire ruled the island nation, says Prashan Francis, director general of the Gem and Jewellery Research and Training Institute.
There were hundreds of mines spread throughout the southwest and central parts of the island. In 1916, during World War I, a boom time for graphite mining, Sri Lanka exported 33,411 metric tons (36,829 short tons), accounting for 35 percent of the world’s consumed graphite supply.
Demand for graphite, used in brake linings, as a lubricant and a host of other ways, dropped when the war ended. And when the British left Sri Lanka a few decades later, graphite export became more difficult, Francis says.
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