May Day is celebrated the world over in memory of the selfless pioneers who fought for workers’ rights. But in Sri Lanka, how many are conscious of the significance of the day? Trade unions, except for a few, are affiliated to political parties and their leaders are at the beck and call of politicians with May Day rallies virtually ending up as propaganda meetings.
Slogans, a common feature at the processions that precede the rallies, are often statements of personal slander that border on obscenity at times. In a May Day procession prior to the 1977 Parliamentary elections, some women, probably hired from a local Billingsgate, were heard shouting, “Heththe hathe – ………. nathe”.
“Dudley-ge bade masala wade” was another empty slogan that brought out the bankruptcy of a leading left party that once stood for parity of status for both Sinhala and Tamil. The traditional left which boasts of their service to the workers’ cause often cites the 1980 general strike, which ended up with thousands of strikers losing their jobs, to brand the J.R. Jayewardene regime a tyranny. Whether the strike was a genuine trade union struggle or a concerted effort by the Left parties to topple the then government, is questionable.
In fairness to JR, two far-reaching proposals that benefited public sector workers were included (if I remember right) in the very first Budget of his government (1977-1982) by the then Finance Minister, Ronnie de Mel. Up to that time, the government servants’ pensions were calculated based on the number of years in service. A worker who had served 40 years was entitled to a pension equal to two thirds (2/3) of the salary drawn at retirement (40/60 formula).
However, de Mel’s proposal reduced the qualifying period for the pension to 10 years. The pension was raised to 85-90 % of the salary at retirement, depending on the grade of the worker.
The second proposal was to raise the Widows & Orphans pension, which had been calculated up to that time based on the contributions to the W&OP fund by the worker. The dependents of the worker were entitled to the full pension of the worker on his demise, according to the new scheme.
Since then the public sector employees have been enjoying the benefits of these two revolutionary proposals. One is reminded of the famous Sinhala saying ‘ Yaka hithana tharam kalu natha’ (The progressive measures referred to above belie the exaggerated picture of the ‘working class enemy’ painted by the critics.)
On the contrary, what did the so-called left leaders who were ministers in the Sirimavo Bandaranaike coalition do for workers? N.M. Perera, the then Finance Minister (of ‘21 demands’ fame, when in the opposition) did away with the pension scheme in respect of the new recruits to the public service. Once in power, the 21 demands, to which the Galle Face Green will bear testimony, were completely forgotten.
The stark truth is put in black and white for the edification of those who matter. I am a retired public servant, an octogenarian, who has immensely benefited from de Mel’s worker-friendly budget proposals.
Coming back to the May Day celebrations, it is my candid opinion that it is a colossal waste of resources and energy, which would otherwise have been fruitfully used for workers’ welfare. At the end of the day, nothing is left except an unpleasant memory of an exchange of brickbats and catcalls. (“Natapu netumakuth natha. Bere paluwakuth natha.’!)
J. Abeygunawardhana, Homagama