The decision by the Government to declare the supply of petroleum and allied matters as an essential service would have been welcomed by the long suffering public. With many sections of the community being adversely affected by a series of wildcat strikes and demonstrations, the Government’s decisive action gave the citizenry some degree of relief. [...]


Old habits die hard: Change the trade union culture


The decision by the Government to declare the supply of petroleum and allied matters as an essential service would have been welcomed by the long suffering public. With many sections of the community being adversely affected by a series of wildcat strikes and demonstrations, the Government’s decisive action gave the citizenry some degree of relief.

A man with a club seen outside the Kolonnawa oil depot

The declaration of any service as essential is based on the premise that the disruption of that service by strikes or any similar action critically impacts on society in such a manner that even people’s lives are put at risk. Put simply the right of the workers to engage in strike action has to be weighed against the larger public good which is affected by this action.

The disruption of petroleum supplies would have affected practically every aspect of social life. The transport system would have been crippled, food supplies would have been disrupted and electricity supply affected, Hospitals which are battling with the dengue epidemic would have been the worst hit, with operating theatres rendered nonfunctional. Many lives would have been put at risk. What was worse the public was made aware of the strike only a few hours before such action was to begin.

Yet many aspects surrounding the strike action and its immediate fallout merit critically examination. The first relates to reports that striking workers caused deliberate damage to bowsers and other property. Petroleum Minister Arjuna Ranatunga said the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation had incurred huge losses and promised to furnish a report to Parliament. An independent investigation has to be launched and action taken against those who resorted to wanton destruction. The message should clearly go out that while legitimate trade union action was permissible, wanton destruction of public property would be severely dealt with.

Another matter of concern is the allegation that thugs had set upon the strikers and assaulted them while the police remained passive onlookers. If one is to go by television footage, there seems to be a great deal of truth in such allegations. The fact that Police did not take action against such hooliganism suggests that they may have got mixed signals or were made to believe that these thugs should not be dealt with. This is again a totally unacceptable situation reminiscent of the rule of the previous Government.

For instance, UNP Parliamentarians were set upon when they visited Hambantota Harbour and on another occasion, a UNP procession was set upon near Punchi Borella. The irony is that the ‘toy pistol’ toting leader of the mob that attacked the UNPers is now an SLFP Organiser for Hambantota under the Yahapalanaya dispensation.

Adding insult to injury is the endorsement given by Ministers S.B. Dissanayake and Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera to the violence inflicted by thugs on strikers. The Sports Minister claimed that there were no Government goons involved in the attacks but it was only the general public angered by the inconvenience caused by the strikers who had set upon the strikers. Ironically, some of those who suffered such assaults and were later taken in by the Police were SLFP Trade Union leaders whom the Party’s Trade Union Chief and Presidential Trade Union Advisor Leslie Devendra sought to have released from the Welikade Police.

Minister Jayasekera has also further warned trade unionists to go ahead with their agitation at the risk of getting beaten up by the general public inconvenienced by such strikes. This is a dangerous statement coming from a Government Minister and can amount to an invitation to the public to take the law into their own hands. Even if it was the general public who attacked the petroleum strikers (which is highly unlikely ), they should be brought to book because clearly they have violated the law by assaulting the strikers.

Using thugs to assault strikers is not a new phenomenon in this country. However, its negative consequences for the concept of Good Governance cannot be ignored. Firstly it is morally and legally wrong to do so even if one believes that such strike action was unreasonable or politically motivated.

Secondly, these agents of violence do not engage in such violence because of any spontaneous ‘righteous indignation’ against the strikers or their actions. They do so at the bidding of their political masters who will soon realise that these thugs will inevitably make their own demands and grow completely out of control and develop a violent life of their own.

Thirdly, in the long run these types of actions bring disrepute to the Government and the disapproval of the public at large. Yet another matter that needs to be investigated is the allegation that trade unionists were assaulted at the Welikade Police Station. The mere fact that such allegations were made by Joint Opposition Parliamentarians who were members of the previous Government which had an appalling record of dealing with public agitation does not mean that such allegations must be brushed aside. An independent investigation must be launched in respect of such allegations and action taken if proved to be true.

The Yahapalanaya Government came to power with the promise to make meaningful changes to the quality of Governance. Minister Rajitha Senaratne is fond of repeating that while the Government has changed the State has not changed. That is an opinion with which most people can agree. But the logical corollary to that statement is that the State will not change on its own. The Government has to effect the necessary changes to transform the State.

Many of the bad practices of the past regime are being continued under this Government. One can cite the attempted arrest (abduction?) of the university student Ryan after a news conference by individuals not in police uniform. The Police later claimed that they were Policemen in civilian clothes. What casts doubt in the mind of the public is the fact that the civilian clothing worn was t-shirts and similar apparel which hardly befits a disciplined Police force. The Police Department clearly needs to inform the public of the circumstances under which Police may carry out their duties in civilian attire and the need for such Policemen to identify themselves when carrying out such duties.

The fact that two Ministers — Mangala Samaraweera and Dr. Rajitha Senaratne –immediately condemned the foiled attempt to take in the student was further indication that the whole incident looked very suspicious.

Another bad practice of the previous regime indulged in by the present Government is the practice of moving court to get orders preventing demonstrations or protests. When the Police do so hours before a demonstration, it leaves little room for magistrates to refuse such applications because the B report probably speaks of some irreparable harm that may be caused if the application is not granted. However, some magistrates have in some cases refused such applications after the contents of the B reports not making a case for such orders.

Police making such applications to court is clearly a case of violating the people’s right of association and expression. There are sufficient provisions in the Police Ordinance and the Criminal Procedure Code for Police to act in the event of any breakdown in law and order during such protests and demonstrations.

The Police have, however, also made a welcome departure from the bad practice of the past regime by not resorting to shooting at protestors and demonstrators and confining themselves to using water cannons and tear gas although it is a moot point whether it was necessary to do so every time they resorted to such action. The order not to shoot is clearly on orders from above and the Government can take credit for same.
As much as there is a need to make radical changes to the political culture of the country, there is a grave and compelling need to change the trade union culture.

The Government must initiate a dialogue with trade unions to set up mechanisms and processes that would ensure the right to trade union action and addressing of grievances of workers in an orderly and civilised manner. The Government must solicit views from the trade unions themselves to make such changes. Labour Minister and SLFP veteran W. D. J. Seneviratne who is temperamentally well suited with the capacity and patience to give a hearing to all concerned can be entrusted with this task to speedily address this matter.

In dealing with the workers and trade unions which are highly politicised, the Government will have to have the patience, tact and perseverance to keep talking to the trade unions even if at times they seem adamant and unreasonable in their demands or are influenced by political agendas. If such a bona fide approach is taken, most trade unions will fall in line and can be persuaded to arrive at a reasonable solution. In dealing with workers and trade unions the Government must be ready for the long haul. That is part of the job description of Government.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.