With May Day – the day marking solidarity with the workers of the world approaching, one might think the most important issues would be the cost of living; the wages and safety of workers; or their trade union rights. Wrong. The main issue at the highest political levels in the country is – can the [...]


May Day politics and worker issues


With May Day – the day marking solidarity with the workers of the world approaching, one might think the most important issues would be the cost of living; the wages and safety of workers; or their trade union rights. Wrong. The main issue at the highest political levels in the country is – can the Joint Opposition fill up Galle Face Green for its May Day rally tomorrow.
That politics has overwhelmed so many aspects of life, not just in Sri Lanka but around the world too has become a fait accompli, so much so that traditional politics is being shown the door; the latest example being the run-up to the French presidency poll.

Like in the case of Provincial Councils – and Local Government elections which are primarily a test of the political strength of the competing parties, so too is tomorrow’s May Day celebrations. It has little to do with worker solidarity, in fact, it is a textbook case of “workers of the world – divide”, not unite. In Sri Lanka, May Day will be marked under a dark cloud. Just last Sunday, the very threat of a strike by the trade unions of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) caused typical panic among the citizenry. The workers were protesting the renting out of a mere 15 oil tanks in Trincomalee to an Indian company. Meanwhile, Government medical officers by day (and private practitioners by night) downed their stethoscopes and dragged out undergrads, disrupting already congested traffic on the city roads, protesting against private medical colleges – and trade agreements with India.

Not a day passes without a protest here or a protest there, from garbage disposal to police abuses to elephant-human conflicts, all without the issues being resolved by the Government. While some may see all of this drama unfolding as Vox Populi – the Voice of the People, and democracy at its best, others think it is governance at its worst.

Such is the situation that the Government has come to its wits’ end and in what seems a knee-jerk reaction suggested that the no-nonsense former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka take charge of the situation.
“To restore discipline in the country” is the explanation given by the Cabinet spokesman for the move to assign the Field Marshal to tackle the serial public protests and looming strikes that cripple the day-to-day life of the ordinary people. According to the annual Central Bank report released this week, the number of workers involved in strikes increased in 2016 and the number of man days lost due to strikes increased by 21 percent to 85,637 in the plantations and by as much as 61 percent to 18,690 in the other sectors.

The Government, however, had a terrible sense of timing in coming out with the Fonseka antidote for strikes and demos. The announcement, which some ministers said was only made in jest, came on the eve of the European Union Parliament taking a vote on a resolution to scuttle Sri Lanka receiving the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) duty concessions for exports to the bloc. An EU delegation that was in the country earlier this month had expressed concern over growing limitations on workers’ rights towards collective bargaining, and the right to strike. While they concentrated on labour rights in the Free Trade Zone, they also referred to allegations of torture, the rights of minorities and of gays and lesbians and recommended that GSP+ not be renewed to Sri Lanka.

And yet, not all protests and demonstrations need have negative effects. While strikes must be the ‘last resort’ – not the first, and it often seems unreasonable that one group having control of a particularly sensitive handle on the life of the community – like doctors or petroleum workers or Electricity Board workers or bus operators, the case of the demonstrations by the workers at the Hambantota port – even if they were engineered by political elements, had the desired effect of the Government taking a fresh look at a hurriedly done agreement with the Chinese and came up with a better deal for this country.

It was unfortunate that such had to be the case.  And it was all because the Government, or at least a section of it, was perceived –not only by the public, but by another section of the very Government, to have struck an agreement ‘hatched in secrecy and incubated in darkness’ to the overall detriment of the country.

Whether the Government is serious in asking Field Marshal Fonseka to ‘take charge of situation’ vis-a-vis strikes and protests, or it was said in jest at the Cabinet meeting by no less a persona than the President, it betrays the Government’s insecurity with the working class — an insecurity it showed earlier with the independent Media, and how to handle growing tensions with trade unions and others. Blaming opposition parties is another sign of weakness, as it is the duty of the Opposition to protest – and strike. It is the duty of the Government to ensure circumstances do not arise to provoke protests and demonstrations.

Each year, as we mark International Workers Day, we remind ourselves of two categories of people who tend to get sidelined, almost forgotten on this day. They are the near one million Sri Lankan workers toiling in harsh, inhospitable climes overseas and the unemployed.

A large contingent of workers in West Asia, Japan, South Korea etc., remit nearly US$ seven billion annually to the country and that money helps keep this country’s nose above the water. The Central Bank confirms that the number who went abroad for employment last year dipped as an economic slow-down following an oil price slump hit most of West Asia.

The number of officially registered unemployed, according to the same Central Bank report stands at 360,000, a figure marginally lower than the previous year (a drop from 7.6 per cent to 7.0 per cent); yet, the real figures can be much higher. There is a high rate of GCE A/Level jobless in the country as youth look for white collar jobs in the public sector.

There is also a high proportion of youth in the category known as ‘Not in Employment, Education or Training’ (NEET) which is a burden to society and which results in skills deterioration of the labour force. Their place is being taken by foreign workers, mostly from India and China – guest workers by the hundreds taking the place of absentee Sri Lankans; a new labour force in Sri Lanka. (Please see story on page 1).
But this is all by the way. May Day will be the day for politicians to parade in the limelight, and the workers to follow in the shadow.

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