A wave of strikes and other forms of Trade Union (TU) action caused chaos in a variety of sectors this week. With more TUs gearing up for strikes of their own, the coming weeks are shaping up to be difficult ones for the public at large. This week saw islandwide strikes by doctors as well [...]


Public in limbo as ‘work-to-rule’, ‘sick notes’, ‘strikes’ take centre stage


A wave of strikes and other forms of Trade Union (TU) action caused chaos in a variety of sectors this week. With more TUs gearing up for strikes of their own, the coming weeks are shaping up to be difficult ones for the public at large.

Train commuters were left in the lurch on Friday due to a signal failure between Colombo Fort and Maradana. Pic by Priyanka Samaraweera

This week saw islandwide strikes by doctors as well as by employees of the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB).

Meanwhile, employees of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service Association (SLASA) and Sri Lanka Railways conducted limited work and work-to-rule campaigns, while warning they would resort to strike action in the coming days. State universities and higher education institutes continued to be paralysed for a second week, by an indefinite strike launched by non-academic staff members.

Meanwhile, teachers’ and principals’ unions are also due to launch a 2-day ‘Sick-Note’ campaign on September 26 and 27. A clear sign that more TU actions are in the offing, as the country heads for a Presidential Election on November 16.

Demands related to salary anomalies has become the foremost issue for striking Unions. It was such a salary anomaly issue that led to the indefinite strike launched by university non-academic staff, which marked its 10th day on Friday (20). A total of 27 Unions representing some 16, 000 non-academic staff across 15 State universities and 15 higher education institutes are currently on strike, said University Trade Union Joint Committee (UTUJC) Co-President Dhammika S. Priyantha. “Everyone in the University sector, barring Lecturers, are on strike.”

“All exams scheduled during this period have been postponed indefinitely. No lectures are being held, while research work has also been severely affected,” Mr Priyantha stated. He added that Universities have also had to put off admitting new students, due to the strike.

Mr Priyantha said the strike will continue until authorities take steps to rectify the salary anomaly issue affecting non-academic staff members since 2016, when the Government increased public sector wages by Rs 10,000. “A meeting, Unions held with President’s Secretary Udaya R. Seneviratne on Friday, failed to resolve the issue, as officials from the Salaries & Cadres Commission and the Finance Ministry’s Management Services Department were not present,” Mr Priyantha added. “They have scheduled another meeting for next week, but we will continue our strike until our demands are met.”

Government officers of the SLASA have been engaged in a “limited work” campaign this week. This follows a 2-day ‘Sick-Note’ campaign last week that severely hampered work at key Government institutions such as the Department of Registration of Persons, Department of Immigration & Emigration and the Department of Motor Traffic. SLASA Secretary Rohana De Silva said that, as part of their limited work action this week, they attended only to the duties entrusted to them under their appointment letters. Accordingly, officials were not present at functions attended by people’s representatives, did not sit on Interview Boards or take part in special development projects of the Government. This action is due to continue until Tuesday (24), when officers will decide whether to go for more stringent action.

The SLASA is protesting over a salary anomaly created by the increase in wages given to officers of the Attorney General’s (AG) Department in 2018. Minister of Public Administration Ranjith Madduma Bandara presented a Cabinet Paper this week, recommending an Interim Allowance (IA) be paid to employees of 17 Government Services, until a permanent solution could be found for the issue. Mr De Silva however, said Cabinet did not approve the proposal as Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera wanted a week to give his observations on it. “The Minister has already given his observations about this issue on 3 other occasions, hence, we fail to see why he needs another week,” Mr De Silva said.

He blamed both, the former and current Governments, for the present crisis, stating that salary anomalies in the State sector had existed since 2012. “We have been discussing the matter since then. The decision to increase salaries only at the AG’s Department worsened the issue.”

There was a sequel to Minister Madduma Bandara’s Cabinet Paper, in that, it prompted the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) to launch a token islandwide strike on Wednesday (18), deeply inconveniencing patients at Government hospitals.

GMOA Spokesman Dr Samantha Ananda said that Medical Officers (MO) had been excluded from the Cabinet Paper regarding an IA. “We held a meeting with Minister Madduma Bandara on Friday, where he accepted the decision to increase salaries in the AG’s Department, has also created a salary anomaly for MOs. He said he will discuss the matter with all stakeholders and get back to us. We, however, emphasized to him that, if the Government disregards our demands, we will launch TU action without prior warning.”

The strike launched by SLTB TUs affected about 60 of its 106 depots, said All Ceylon Transport Workers’ Union Secretary Sepala Liyanage.

The strike was launched to demand that the Rs 2,500 salary hike given to Government employees in the 2019 Budget, be granted to SLTB workers as well, and to amend the salaries of SLTB staff. “The salaries of drivers, conductors and technicians have been increased, but there has been no amendment to salaries of other staff,” he said. Mr Liyanage, though, charged that some rival unions had “sabotaged” the strike by falsely claiming that the Government had agreed to these demands. “Employees returned to work believing these lies, but now they know, no such agreement had been reached. We hope to relaunch our TU action in the coming days, after further discussions,” he added.

Scenes at the Puttalam Hospital (above and below). Pix by Hiran Priyankara

On Friday (20), a work-to-rule campaign launched by Railway TUs was only just beginning, when heated arguments between commuters and railway staff at several train stations, including the Fort Railway Station, began that evening, as commuters were faced with closed ticket counters.

However, unions announced last morning that they were suspending the work-to-rule action as discussions aimed at resolving their issues had commenced with authorities.

Striking Unions strongly pushed back over claims their TU actions were politically motivated and were designed to target the upcoming Presidential Election campaigns, in the hope of gaining maximum leverage from the Government. UTUJC Co-President Dhammika S. Priyantha noted that University non-academic staff had been raising their salary anomaly issue since 2016, while SLASA Secretary Rohana De Silva reminded that they had already engaged in TU action before, over their matter.

Government Executive Officers’ Joint Committee President Dr M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, though, acknowledged that, “Unions were active towards election season, because that was “mostly, the only time that politicians actually listen to us.” Dr Karunasiri also noted that they too had raised the issue created by the 2018 increase of salaries in the Legal field, before this month.

He said they put forward 3 demands during discussions held with Minister Madduma Bandara on Friday (20), regarding an IA to Government employees, until a solution is found for the salary anomaly. “The demands included that no existing allowances be cut and that, a flat rate should be given for the allowance, rather than going by various grades,” he revealed. “Since the Minister agreed to these demands, we have decided to postpone our TU action scheduled for Monday (23), but, if the Cabinet Paper on granting an IA to 18 Government Services is not approved by Cabinet, on Tuesday (24), we will go for TU action,” he warned.

Repeated attempts to contact Public Administration Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara were unsuccessful.

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