ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 34
Financial Times  

Industrial disputes and minority shareholders

While the now confirmed crossovers to government ranks from the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress hogged the headlines of the national press, there were other issues that drew the attention of the business community.

Among them are industrial disputes and some new innovative methods that benefits all sides; drama over COPE recommendations and slamming of state firms and finally a meeting between a group of minority shareholders and the Colombo Stock Exchange.
While there are encouraging signs that private sector firms like in the case of SriLankan Airlines renewing its collective agreement with unions and Coca Cola doing a similar pact, are ensuring industrial calm, there are also worrying signs that the JVP is flexing its muscles for a period of strikes.

With the government distancing itself from the JVP and wooing the UNP, JHU and the SLMC to swell its ranks in the legislature to implement the Rajapaksa doctrine, the leftwing party sees no other alternative than to resort to street protests and industrial unrest to ‘make its presence felt on the political stage’– like it did some years back.

The recent decision to set up a cabinet sub committee to settle industrial disputes thus is a step in the right direction and must be commended. It must also be workable and resort to quick-decision making processes to be effective.

The government can take a cue from the private sector where the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC) has done yeoman service in bridging the gap between private sector employers and workers. The wages agreement between plantation workers, unions and the EFC is an excellent case in point of how an institution is able to balance the needs of all sectors and come up with a win-win deal for all. Of course the recent negotiations were protracted and there was some heartburn – nevertheless that was more the exception than the rule.

The EFC structure is an excellent model for the government to follow and set up an independent dispute-mechanism body which is far more powerful and savvy than the Labour Department mechanism. In the alternative, the latter unit can be strengthened to perform this role.

Corrupt and inept public institutions came in for the second bashing in as many months after the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises blew the lid on many institutions including the BOI where everything was supposed to be hunky dory or the public was led to believe so. Earlier the Auditor General took them to task.

Widespread coverage of the COPE report and our own reports this week reveals the extent of corruption, haughtiness on the part of government officials, sheer arrogance of power and worst of all, wasting valuable taxpayers’ money on non-essentials.
Wijedasa Rajapakse, a senior lawyer and parliamentarian who heads COPE, hasn’t minced his words in slamming public sector institutions.

He has also made a vital recommendation one hopes will see the light of day – for COPE proceedings to be open to the media and to the people (who … remember are responsible for the wages of state officials).

Yet after all the ranting and raving; the determination to take things forward and see that justice is done, will COPE’s Rajapakse ever be able to do as he says and expects? Or is it more viable to come up with some practical, easy-to-implement proposals that take off immediately before waiting for bigger things to happen?

Very often we have seen strong and powerful reports indicting government officials that however haven’t gone beyond announcements or grand pronouncements. Will Rajapakse’s effort end up like many of these instances in the past? The media is watching. So Mr Rajapakse as much as your effort to highlight wrongdoing in public enterprises is praiseworthy, it is also incumbent on you to follow up on all the proposals you make and ensure these are implemented. That would prove your sincerity of purpose, vision and mission. The public desperately is looking for effective leadership and statesmanship.

Another encouraging proposal is the request for COPE to scrutinize the affairs of all companies in which the government has a stake, an area that currently doesn’t come under COPE. This proposal has been praised by the private sector.

Minority shareholders have always complained about the slipshod treatment they get at the hands of listed companies and how directors evade questions at annual general meetings and related issues, and only respond to the needs of the ‘big guys’.

In this context the meeting between a group of ‘small’ shareholders and the CSE to see how the exchange could make sure their interests are taken care of in the formulation of policy and rules was a positive development this week.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.