May Day has come and gone and the working class will need to wait until next year to be commemorated again. In the intervening 364 days, the working people will face the overt threat of Police riot squads and water cannon if they take to the streets making demands, and the covert moves by the [...]


The workers forgotten on May Day


May Day has come and gone and the working class will need to wait until next year to be commemorated again. In the intervening 364 days, the working people will face the overt threat of Police riot squads and water cannon if they take to the streets making demands, and the covert moves by the Finance Ministry to convert their EPF (Employees Provident Fund) into something else while the Fund’s directors play the Stock Market with the monies.
In some countries, this day is celebrated with military parades. In the country where it all started – the United States, the day is celebrated in September with a holiday.

In Sri Lanka, this day was one for trade unions to come out on the streets with clenched fists and megaphones making their demands to governments for better wages and working conditions and for their legitimate rights. Over the years these demands have seen some progressive legislation enacted to protect workers from ‘exploitation of man by man’, but it has now gone a step too far with Labour Tribunals making industry unworkable. Now, the political parties have stolen the show relegating the unions into the background.

From varying platforms displaying flags of myriad colours it is a case of ‘Workers of the world divide’. Politician after politician screamed about the defeat of terrorism, international conspiracies, Western imperialism and recent economic development projects or about corruption, the cost of living and creeping authoritarianism.  Just a handful, however, even remotely focused on the categories almost always forgotten on this day viz., the migrant worker in West Asia and elsewhere, the farmer, and the unemployed.

In the North, the politicians also held rallies. But nary a word about the fisher-workers whose livelihood has been badly bruised by the mass-scale poaching by South Indian fishermen. Such is their sheer subservience to neighbouring India.

As far as the migrant workers are concerned it must be because they are not voters that the politicians don’t care. The Elections Commissioner says that there are “practical difficulties” involved in giving them the vote. That may be so, but also true is the fact that more than a million Sri Lankan voters are disenfranchised as a result.

Some 300,000 Sri Lankans went to West Asia last year. The Sri Lankan workers in West Asia remitted as much as US$ 6.8 billion (Rs. 884 billion) last year, up from US$ 6 billion the previous year. The corresponding funds allocated to the Ministry of Foreign Employment are a meagre Rs. 560 million or less than half a per cent of the country’s budget. About 40 per cent of the workforce in those inhospitable climes are women and it is only now that the Government is beginning to send a handful of women officers to the Sri Lankan embassies in the Gulf States to see to their welfare.

The Foreign Employment Bureau (SLFEB), meanwhile, is riddled with corruption. Its main task is to collect money from job agents (for registration of contracts and related matters,) and bank it in one solitary account in its favour. While restrictions are being put in place especially for female migrant workers, there is an urgent need to recruit women graduates to the SLFEB, put them in regional offices and then send them to these States to ensure the safety, security and wellbeing of these female workers.

Insofar as the country’s unemployment is concerned, the Central Bank report for 2013 released only last month says the rate has increased. Close to half a million people remain unemployed or under-employed (with part time jobs) in Sri Lanka. The Central Bank attributes this to the increase in the labour force bolstered by the entry of rural sector females. In the vulnerable age group 25-29 years, the number of unemployed youth rose from 6.7% in 2012 to 7.5% in 2013. All is not rosy therefore with the economy, and one shudders to think if this is the group that will eventually be wooed into the emerging casino industry. No wonder the dream of young people, both in the North and the South, remains to go abroad for employment.

In the case of the farmers, their fertiliser subsidy has been slashed and their pension scheme unfairly suspended. The Government resumed payments to the Farmers Pension Fund from January this year, but no arrears are being paid for the period the scheme was suspended. The result is that the farmers have been short-changed and do not trust the Government any more.  Spare a thought for these three forgotten categories in the midst of the cacophony of voices we heard on May Day.

Use GPS tracking for trains
Only a few months ago a ‘Ghost train’ ran several miles. It was not one of those fully automated trains, just that there was no engine driver. It travelled on unimpeded until it was brought to a halt. Ironically, this week, there was a train accident where an engine driver was in the saddle.

Sri Lanka has been beefing up its railway network at speed. Existing tracks are being upgraded in several parts of the country. And new tracks are being laid with foreign financing, allowing the public to access by train areas that were reachable only by road during the ‘war’. North and South are once again connected via rail.
The number of commuters using rail services has also increased exponentially. But despite improvements in infrastructure and rolling stock, safety remains a concern. Several accidents have happened in recent years, some of them serious. The collision of two trains at Pothuhera on Wednesday was the latest in a series of similar disasters; in September 2011, May 2012 and January 2013.

For several years, Sri Lanka has been studying the possibility of introducing real-time tracking of trains via Global Positioning System (GPS). This will not only enable the Central Control Room to see where each train is, but with the installation of a screen on board, allows the engine driver to observe his own location as well as any obstruction in his path — another train, an elephant or even people. Station masters are also in the loop.

The system thereby reduces — to some extent — the danger of train collisions. A large number of countries have already installed GPS tracking in their trains or are considering it. India already has a system that improves safety while greatly enhancing the convenience of passengers who are able to see where a train is from their mobile device or computer. This lets them decide when to leave for the station.

Accidents may still occur due to human error or other unforeseeable circumstances. But it is the responsibility of the State to ensure that all measures are taken to make the rail network safe and secure for commuters and for others.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

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