Over 1,600 unions exist
Three space travellers aboard a rocket to the moon were explaining the reasons for their voyage:
The American astronaut says, “My country intends to dominate outer space.” The Russian astronaut says, “My country must compete against the Americans.”
The Sri Lankan trade unionist says, “In my country, full moon days are holidays and – on the moon, everyday is a full moon day.”
This joke was narrated at a seminar on ‘Conflict Resolution at the Workplace’ last weekend, to indicate the prevailing work ethic of trade unions in Sri Lanka. The seminar was organised by Knowledge Agent, a company that offers a suite of training inputs through a faculty that includes professors and professionals.
Causes of conflict in workplaces
The root cause of conflict at the workplace, where Trade Unions (TUs) are concerned, is that most of them have political agendas, according to Neville Joseph, a lawyer who has specialised in industrial disputes.
In an interview with The Sunday Times FT he said the trend was traceable to a slogan that TUs thrived on: “Down with capitalists! Down with employers!” That was a Marxist concept that permeated into our system, was blindly followed by the workers and has now boomeranged on the country.
TUs can carry out a very important function in Sri Lanka, he said.
They should be social partners whose role is to ensure productivity and enhance workers’ standard of living. However – except the Mercantile Union and the Bank Employees’ Union (“the educated lot”) – they have become political stooges of the government. As a consequence, even legitimate rights of workers are subjugated for political reasons, to appease the government.
What does one do when management is unreasonable? The main weapon that workers have is strike action, confirms Joseph. But, it is only as an ultimate resort that workers should strike work.
Before engaging in strike action, responsible TUs must agitate before the Commissioner of Labour for a settlement. There is a conciliatory process where workers can complain to the Commissioner and ask that the matter be referred to arbitration. While arbitration is going on, workers are working and livelihoods are secured.
Labour law is the most dynamic area of law in the world today because - unlike civil and criminal legislation - labour law affects the entire society through the working class. Being the ‘living law’, it must necessarily be dynamic, not static. However, our labour legislation, being over 50-years old, is outmoded, noted Joseph. India has a National Labour Commission (NLC) under the stewardship of a retired Chief Justice.
The NLC continuously measures changes in global labour standards, based on which it makes amendments and places them before the government for consideration. Hence, labour legislation in India is brought upto the required standard through amendments that are appropriate for the evolving environment.
An NLC on the footing of the Indian model is imperative. Sri Lanka has many erudite scholars, judges and TU leaders who can serve on the commission and evolve a law that is compatible with the changing circumstances.
The high cost of living is a matter for national debate, but a related aspect is the wage structure. Today, people are faced with a market where the buyer calls the shots. Employers say, ‘Paying Rs 6,000 or Rs 12,000 is not a problem, but will the buyer pay us? Or will we lose the market to China and India?’ A National Wages Commission can play a role by examining the problem holistically; establishing such an agency is the onus of the government. Before doing that, the private sector must improve productivity, says Joseph.
Sri Lanka has witnessed an unprecedented wave of strikes in the public and plantation sectors recently.
These highlight the adversarial nature of the relationship between managements and trade unions (TUs), which is a vestige of the country’s colonial past. In this context, the effective and tactful handling of TUs by employers would contribute towards minimising industrial unrest.
G. Weerakoon, a retired Commissioner of Labour, said that a major problem in dealing with TUs is the multiplicity of unions and their political affiliations. In a country with eight million workers, less than 30% of them are organised into unions. Nevertheless, there are as many as 1,600 TUs in operation. Unlike in South Korea and Japan, very few of these are enterprise-based TUs. Many unions are controlled by outsiders with political connections and most employers would prefer not to deal with - or even recognise - them. This is perfectly legitimate, avers Weerakoon, because present labour laws do not compel employers to recognise TUs. The amendment to Industrial Disputes Act (No 56 of 1999) merely mandates employers to bargain with a TU having membership strength of at least 40% of the workforce.
After a country has ratified any Convention of International Labour Organisation (ILO), there is an obligation for organisations to comply with it. Sri Lanka has ratified ILO Convention 87 on ‘Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise’. Sharing information with the workforce helps in building up greater rapport between the two sides, observes Weerakoon. This is typically done through in-house bulletins and newsletters, to avoid disinformation and miscommunication.
In an address peppered with humourous anecdotes, lawyer Neville Joseph covered a wide range of issues. He identified two challenges confronting human resource management - to maintain harmonious relations and to have a contented workforce.
Thatcher’s Conservative government implemented labour legislation that curbed TU power. A classic example of the hard negotiation stance adopted was the 12-month Miners’ Strike in 1984/85 that led to the rout of the union. In countries like Switzerland and Germany, public servants cannot strike. Joseph draws a stark contrast with the situation in Sri Lanka where “all strikes are legal.”
Joseph also narrated the case where the Joint Apparel Association Forum obtained a favourable Supreme Court verdict against the Port Trade Unions.