As the seventh strike in six months by rail staff ended this week – a stoppage in solidarity with a worker facing reprimand after being reportedly found drunk on duty – the public’s frustration boiled over. Strikes, some lasting two days, derailments due to poor maintenance of tracks, accidents and delays have plagued commuters all [...]


Seven strikes are too much: Public reacts


Scene in front of the Fort Railway Station on Thursday. Pic by Priyantha Wickramaarachchi

As the seventh strike in six months by rail staff ended this week – a stoppage in solidarity with a worker facing reprimand after being reportedly found drunk on duty – the public’s frustration boiled over.

Strikes, some lasting two days, derailments due to poor maintenance of tracks, accidents and delays have plagued commuters all year.

Wednesday’s 35-hour strike was the third in three consecutive weeks. Some previous strikes had been called over a grading issue that led to salary anomalies.

After the strike was called off on Thursday afternoon it took more than 15 hours to restore services, with Fort Railway Station being locked up during the stoppage and for hours afterward.

Priyarathna Wanigasekara, who lives in Niwella, was particularly frustrated. Normally a train commuter, he was being forced to take a bus home on Thursday because of the strike.

Then he heard that the strike had been called off and hurriedly got off a Colombo-Nittambuwa bus that was about to take off from Fort.

“I returned to the Fort Railway Station hoping to take the 5.15pm train to Veyangoda. I waited till 8.30 pm and was not even allowed to enter the station even though the strike had been called off,” he said.

The bus journey would have cost him a lot of money and headaches. He would have had to either take a connecting bus to Niwella or – a more likely prospect – missed the connection and faced a Rs. 700 trishaw fare for the last leg of his journey home.

“We have lost our confidence in railway employees. They call strikes all the time and plague us. Then, when they say that they are resuming services, they are not even responsible enough to get straight back to work,” he said.

The General Manager of Railways, Dilantha Fernando, said it had been impossible to get trains running right after the strike was called off on Thursday afternoon as workers are represented by multiple unions controlling different areas of train services.

He said some trains also needed to be checked, cleaned and refuelled. Some trains had been sitting stationary at stations while others had been in railway yards, so it had taken time to assemble them to run to timetables.

Among the string of railway strikes this year have been stoppages called over promotion demands for 12 assistant drivers over the age of 45, disciplinary actions and salary increments.

Recent industrial action over a grading issue that affected salary anomalies included a 48-hour strike on June 20 and another on June 27 at midnight.

The most recent stoppage was called over a reported dispute between the Transport Ministry and the Railways General Manager over a decision to suspend a union leader found to be intoxicated while on duty.

“We joined this strike because the action of the Railways General Manager was correct and therefore the political party-associated unions, along with other unions, decided to take a stand against the ministry for favouring an individual unionist who was found drinking while working,” the President of the All-Ceylon Railway Union, S.P. Vithanage, said.

He acknowledged the public was being greatly inconvenienced by strikes and admitted the effectiveness of strikes decreased when stoppages were held continually.

In answer to public complaints about the delay in resuming services after the strike ended, Mr. Vithanage said when the strike by some 80 per cent of rail employees ended, services could not commence immediately.

“Railway services are like a train, with many compartments. The operations management, signalling, engine drivers, guards, technical officers, station masters and labourers all need to work together,” he said.

Rail trade unions say they need straight answers from the government to their pay demands, or clear reasons why those demands might be rejected.

A leader of the Train Operating Supervisors and Managers Alliance, Lal Ariyaratne, said the disputes over grading and salary anomalies had persisted for years and union action had been, he claimed, taken as the last resort.

“The government tells us unionists that our demands would be met but they postpone providing solutions,” he said.

Claims over ‘booze’ trigger of latest strike

Transport Minister Arjuna Ranatunga said the man at the heart of the rail strike – an employee reportedly found drinking on duty – would face sanctions, ending a standoff between his ministry and Railways General Manager Dilantha Fernando over the issue.

The worker at the centre of the commotion, a union leader, claims he has been framed to prevent him being granted a promotion.

Chandrasena Bandara, the suspended unionist

In May, this worker was allegedly found to be intoxicated while on duty. Mr. Fernando’s decision to take disciplinary action against him, and the ministry’s response to his move, resulted in a 35-hour disruption of train services this week.

Mr. Fernando this week defended his move and said the Transport Ministry had withheld approval of disciplinary action.

“I took the relevant action according to the Establishment Code,” he said.

“There are only two methods when it comes to dealing with employees taking liquor in working hours. The first is to get a medical report carried out by a doctor. The second is to obtain confirmation that the employee is drunk by asking two staff officers to make an observation of the employee and report on whether he appears to be under the influence of liquor.”

He said Railways security officers had found a bottle of liquor and found the worker to be inebriated.

“I have the capacity to take disciplinary action regarding employees of the Railways Department but since this employee is a union leader I needed the approval of the Secretary of the Transport Ministry. Therefore, pending approval, I began disciplinary action against the employee concerned,” Mr. Fernando said.

He said he had written to the ministry Secretary, L.P. Jayampathi, for approval but the secretary had replied that he would not assent to disciplinary action.

“I used the correct protocol – and general managers before me have also taken action against unionist employees who have done wrong,” Mr. Fernando said.

He said a second letter with more details regarding the incident had been sent to the Secretary of the Ministry but the same reply had come back, denying approval of disciplinary action.

“Then I drafted a third letter, saying if I am to be denied authority to take disciplinary action then to transfer me or to take ministry action against the employee,” General Manager Fernando said.

“Following that, unions who had been holding strikes to get their salary anomalies resolved, and politically-affiliated unions, called a strike in support of my decision.”

Addressing the media and left Minister Arjuna Ranatunga at a news conference

He said the strike had been called off after the Transport Minister promised to take relevant disciplinary action against the employee, a union secretary.

The employee, Driver’s Assistant Chandrasena Bandara, the Secretary of the United National Party-affiliated Railway Technology and Operating Services Union, claims he was framed by the Railways General Manager and other unions, including the Locomotive Operators Union.

He says the incident was created to prevent him from being appointed an engine driver.

Mr. Bandara said 12 assistant drivers, including himself, had sat for the drivers examination and passed it in 2014 but had been unable to obtain promotion. They had put their case before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

On the day the incident of Mr. Bandara being allegedly found with alcohol had occurred, the tribunal had handed down its decision saying the 12 must be appointed as engine drivers.

Mr. Bandara gave his version of what had occurred that day.

“When the incident took place, at 9.30am on May 5, I was in the restroom with one of my friends. Three Railways security officers came in and began a search. When they were unable to find anything one of them went out and made a call and returned and found a liquor bottle inside a drawer.

“Normally, two staff officers should have checked me but there was only one. I called for an investigation via a medical checkup. That was denied, and I and another colleague who was with me in the restroom were taken away to have a statement recorded.

“Two officers signed the document that was filed against me,” he said, stressing that only one officer had checked his condition and the other signatory, who had allegedly not been present at the time, could therefore not have been able to judge whether he had been under the influence of alcohol or not.

Minister Ranatunga promised to take disciplinary action against the union leader and also gave an assurance that the Railways General Manager would remain in his position.

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