Have some trade unions, not all, become a harbinger of bad news? This is what a colleague asked me the other day when there was outrage over reports of high salaries of a few top officials of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) who are powerful union leaders. No one would grumble if officials are paid [...]

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Right royal mess


Have some trade unions, not all, become a harbinger of bad news?

This is what a colleague asked me the other day when there was outrage over reports of high salaries of a few top officials of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) who are powerful union leaders. No one would grumble if officials are paid handsomely for a hard day’s work (that’s an example followed by Singapore) but only if it is within the means of such state organisations to adequately compensate their workers. But when it’s a state organisation that is losing millions, in fact, billions of rupees, then the question arises over these exorbitant payments which have contributed to the losses made by the CEB.

These officials were earning high six-figure salaries which are nowhere in comparison to what their colleagues earn in other state organisations, some of which may be more efficient.

In general, officials of most unions cannot be painted with the same brush – there are some unions which are closely collaborating with the private sector on one united agenda – development of the sector and its people. More on this later.

The outcry over high salaries came after one CEB union threatened to strike which would have crippled services across the island but was thankfully avoided after its officials met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the action was called off.

Apart from this fiasco, the CEB was also in the news when its Chairman M.M.C. Ferdinando retracted a statement he made to a Parliamentary Committee where he said he was pressurised by the President to agree to the wind power project in Mannar by India’s Adani group. The President denied the statement, Adani said it was disappointed by the accusation and Mr. Ferdinando promptly resigned.

As I scanned the newspapers for any more reports on the wages of top CEB officials, the quiet Thursday morning was shattered by the ringing of the home phone. It was Kalabala Silva, the often-agitated and retired academic, on the line.

“I say,” he said, after rattling off words of welcome. “What is happening to the CEB? They say officials are getting high salaries but they can’t even do their job properly, noh,” he said.

“Yes, there are media reports that officials are getting high salaries. According to some of our sources, there is some truth to these reports,” I said.

“Look at the state of the CEB today. It is incurring huge losses, selling electricity to the people at exorbitant rates (some say it is subsidised rates but I don’t believe that). On the other hand, the government is paying for these huge losses while the CEB high officials are getting generous increments. This is so unfair,” he said.

“CEB officials have been accused of blocking several private renewable projects while the utility has not paid for electricity fed to the national grid from existing renewable energy supplies which run into billions of rupees,” I said.

The crisis has created a situation where renewable energy producers are looking at setting up units overseas to overcome the loss of revenue from local units.

As stated earlier, like many state institutions, the CEB is plagued with losses and according to Windpower Association Secretary Manjula Perera, for the CEB to survive consumer tariffs must be increased by 325 per cent. This increase would be unbearable to the average consumer in the context of the rising cost of living. Recent moves to increase tariffs appear to have been blocked by the public utilities regulator.

Today’s discussion is not only about CEB unions but unions in general. The government has been firefighting on all fronts against continuous agitation by a plethora of unions, particularly unions representing teachers and principals, and at wits’ end on how to resolve the persistent strikes, which began after COVID-19 health guidelines were relaxed.

But out of this comes the progressive approach by a union representing workers in the free trade zones – Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees’ Union (FTZ & GSEU). When the workers, guided by the union, wanted to join a general strike only after working hours (so that production isn’t affected), their entry to the Katunayake FTZ was blocked allegedly by another union affiliated to a political party.

In the midst of the fuel crisis, FTZ union officials have been discussing with employers how to keep machines working and ensure orders are promptly executed and deadlines met, because loss of business could result in layoffs, which the union is trying to avoid at all costs. In a rare gesture of support, unions are also concerned that the fuel crisis might result in delayed shipments and that buyers may shift their orders to other destinations and thus work with factories to streamline the process. Nevertheless, the livelihoods of thousands of garment factory workers hang in the balance due to issues arising out of the fuel and cooking shortage which personally affected workers.

While reflecting on these issues, I walked to the kitchen and poured myself a mug of tea, the first one for the morning, and was intrigued by the conversation under the margosa tree.

I could hear Kussi Amma Sera saying, “Janadhipathi ekak kiyanawa, aga methi thava ekak kiyanawa (The President is saying one thing and the Prime Minister is saying another thing).”

“Eke theruma mokakda (What do you mean)?” asked Serapina.

Aei…….eka paththarayaka thibuna, Janadhipathi sancharaka niladhari samaga thibba meetimaka upades wagayak deela thibba kiyala. Anith davasema, aga methi eh niladhari ekkama thibba meetimaka wena upades wagayek deela thibba (Why … according to a newspaper, the President had a meeting with officials in the tourism sector and gave instructions. The very next day the Prime Minister had a meeting with these officials and gave different orders),” Kussi Amma Sera said.

The conversation was surprisingly and refreshingly of academic interest. “Owa gena kanassallata pathwenna epa. Mei lankawe deshapalanayane (Don’t worry this is politics in Sri Lanka),” laughed Mabel Rasthiyadu.

As I took sips of tea, my thoughts went back to the crisis at the CEB and some unions holding the institution to ransom. Will the CEB ever become an efficient organisation – I mean in terms of profitability and delivery of services? Your guess is as good as mine!

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