Workers of the world – or at least in Sri Lanka – ‘Divide’. The rallying call of the International Workers, from the barricades as they romantically say, for workers of the world to ‘Unite’ is now a thing of the past. The interests of the working class have been submerged by the interests of the [...]


May Day hijacked by politicians


Workers of the world – or at least in Sri Lanka – ‘Divide’. The rallying call of the International Workers, from the barricades as they romantically say, for workers of the world to ‘Unite’ is now a thing of the past. The interests of the working class have been submerged by the interests of the political class.

May Day celebrations in Sri Lanka are dominated by the politicians who have hijacked the occasion. They want to creep into every sphere of activity — be the centre of the universe. The world must revolve around them. They want to divide the working class and every professional class. Divide-and-Rule is their motto inherited from the colonial rulers of yore just so they can survive – and so they will as long as there are lackeys in these classes willing to sell their soul for a mess of pottage.

Today’s May Day is a test of political strength, especially between the Maithripala Sirisena faction and the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the same party – the SLFP. The former is desperate to win over the party faithful. While every effort is being made, every sinew exerted, to cajole by way of ministerial portfolios, government jobs and even enlisting the support of those rascals who were at the bottom of crooked deals during the previous administration, the Rajapaksa faction has seemingly the support of the grassroot membership of the SLFP. The Rajapaksa faction feels that their party was deprived of total control of the incumbent Government by the defection of those who formed a National Government with the UNP.

What has all this to do with today’s May Day? Nothing. Trade unions are already up in arms with this Government. The GMOA was the first off the block with its work-to-rule which was met with a ferocious response from the Prime Minister, no less. Now the Prime Minister talks of Sri Lanka being the ‘hub of South Asia’ and as he does, so workers who are at the port, the gateway to this hub are threatening strikes in protest against the minister and the chairman, two brothers in charge of the port. During a pre-Avurudu work-to-rule there were 42 ships anchored out-harbour as shipping lines looked to India and Singapore as alternate routes. Telecom trade unions are threatening action and the JVP says May Day is only a prelude to a General Strike.

Around the world, this day is marked differently. Some countries show off their military muscle on this day. In Britain, junior doctors are already on strike so too the airports in Germany this week. Violent street protests against Labour reforms are taking place in France. In Europe there is a major issue brewing over the pay gap between men and women for the same work; as wide as 31 per cent on average in favour of men.

In Sri Lanka politics overshadows worker issues.
Three categories of persons are largely ignored on this Workers’ Day. Firstly, the unemployed. There’s no day dedicated for the ‘Jobless’, whose numbers, according to official statistics stand at half a million. The under-employed – those with part-time jobs swell the ranks of this group. Secondly, the farmer community that is usually left out of the proceedings on May Day. And last, but certainly not least, the overseas Sri Lankan workers without whose remittances this country would be on the brink of economic collapse by now.

These three categories will be of least concern to the country’s political leadership today. Their argument will naturally be that to do anything for them one must first win political power. But when they do get that power, often riding on the shoulders of these very persons to whom promises are solemnly made, promising them the sun, moon and the stars, they still do very little, pre-occupied as they are with staying in office. This Government is no different to its predecessors from the looks of it.
There is also the need to provide employment for skilled and unskilled labour in this country in view of a huge shortage. The construction industry is facing an acute shortage in the midst of development plans that are on-going and in blue print form. Young men prefer to be tuk-tuk drivers these days, lament industry sources. The latest Central Bank report released just this week says that there are 635 public institutions providing technical and vocational education and training and some 718 registered private institutions and NGOs also offer courses but add that the availability of both skilled and unskilled labour in the market “had worsened”. There is a skills “mismatch” in the labour market, the report adds.

The Youth Affairs Ministry statistics for student enrolment for Vocational Training is as gloomy. Of those following courses in Technical Education and Training under the Department of Technical Education, there’s a drop-out rate of 30 per cent. In the National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority the drop-out figure is between 20-30 percent. Has there been a study as to the reasons for this?

Asked what it had to offer the workers today, the Labour Minister had little to say except to hark back to the Rs. 10,000 wage increase for public servants and the minimum wage of last year. On the other hand, there is a different kind of present on offer; an increase in VAT (Value Added Tax) on several items that will hit the workers and un-employed alike in the solar plexus. The people are being asked to underwrite and pay for a bloated, obese, top-heavy Government.

Many are the arguments for and against the imposition of a higher VAT. The Finance Minister originally had ideas of to replace VAT with some other, unknown to many, tax. He wanted to change the tax regime, but only he and a select few knew what on earth it was going to be. Fortunately for all, the rest of the Government shot the idea down and stuck to VAT as the ‘known devil’.
The crux of the issue is that the Government Treasury is broke. But whether the Government should have moderated the proposed VAT hike, say by only a 1 % increase and brought it to the 2014 level of 12% is something the Government could have easily defended.

A reasonable VAT rate of 12% (not 15% as will be the case post-May Day) coupled with further cuts in uneconomical domestic capital expenditures (which is large in the 2016 budget) plus pruning of profligate recurrent expenditure on government ministers etc., could have achieved the same goal of keeping the budget deficit below 5.4% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Last year, the same Government reduced VAT as a populist measure because of a looming election, knowing the General Treasury was broke. Yet, it had nothing to show for it in the form of lowered prices; much like the drop in petrol prices last year did not see tuk-tuk fares become any cheaper.

The people have learnt from the Government how not to lower prices merely because the taxes are lowered. That benefit accruing to them by a lowering of taxes is not passed down to the consumer or end-user. After all, everyone knows world oil prices have fallen but the Government is not pegging its prices to the lower world market price.

On the other hand, a Government increase like VAT will see a quantum leap in retail prices. Unscrupulous retailers take undue advantage of such tax increases to increase their profit margins and blame it on the new tax. It is not a case of one for all and all for one as is the workers slogan on International Workers Solidarity Day. In Sri Lanka, it is each for each and God for all.

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