Port strike: Who will foot the bill? | Sunday Observer

Port strike: Who will foot the bill?

Protesters on the jetty

The tense situation at the Magampura Harbour, Hambantota saw an end with the employees who were involved in the Sathyagraha calling it off last Thursday after a discussion with the Minister of Ports and Shipping, Arjuna Ranatunga.

The trade union action came after an agreement was reached by the Governments of Sri Lanka and China relating to the new administration of the Port. The Magampura Port Workers’ Union demanded that the jobs of over 400 employees be secured by absorbing them into the permanent staff.

The Minister in response stated that these employees were not employed by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, but in fact were taken in under the Magampura Harbour Project.

It was the view of the Minister that the strike was driven by political interests of the previous regime as all measures were taken to ensure that no employees would lose their employment under the new agreement reached with the China Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd to operate the port as a public-private partnership. The Minister who immediately visited the Port and gave an assurance to the angry protestors that their jobs will be secure, informed them that it was the case from the beginning and that the protestors had been misinformed. The Minister further stated that even if one employee loses his job at the Hambantota Sea Port he will resign as Minister.

Strike takes an ugly turn.

In its efforts to transform the Hambantota Port into a profit making entity the government reached an agreement with the China Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd.

Despite many assurances given by the Government and the subject Minister the strike initiated by the Magampura Port employees, which also developed subsequently into a Sathyagraha on December 8, took a turn for the worse when the employees took control over two international ships berthed in the Harbour.

The Hyperion Highway a Japanese owned vehicle carrier was one of the ships taken over by the protestors. The vessel owned by K-Line which berthed at Hambantota on 6 December was due to arrive in Oman by December 11, after completing operations in Sri Lanka (Hambantota Port). It was only at 6 p.m. on the11th that the Sri Lanka Navy was able to take over the ship and safely escort it into international waters. The ship was delayed by four days which caused a thumping loss of over US$ 400,000 to the carrier.

The protestors had placed forklifts, excavators and gantry cranes making it impossible to unmoor the ship and also blocking the ship’s waterway.

Speaking to Sunday Observer, the Navy spokesperson, Captain Akram Alvi, said, this act in itself is considered as an act of piracy and hence, the Sri Lanka Navy had all the right to enter and take control over the situation. He further explained, according to “International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) the Navy is vested with the responsibility of ensuring that foreign vessels are able to dock and leave the ports.”

According to ABC shipping lines, two more ships that were expected at Hambantota Port owned by ‘K’-Line were subsequently re-routed through Singapore.

While the Sri Lanka Navy was trying to control the tense situation at Port the issue came under the spotlight in Parliament too. The Joint Opposition claimed that Naval ratings have beaten the port workers with poles. Meanwhile, the Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne was seen at the scene in civilian attire.

But the Commander attracted much attention after engaging in what seemed like a brawl with one of the regional correspondents who was present at Port, covering the situation. This was heavily criticized by a cross section of the political parties and civil societies, and the Free Media Movement called for an inquiry against the Navy Commander. Minister Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, himself a former Commander of the Army, claimed that the Navy Commander was wearing the usual attire of a Port Pilot. However, a report was called by the Prime Minister on this incident from the Navy Commander.

At the meeting the Prime Minister said, it is the country that will be heavily hit by such actions. “Already the port has received a bill of US$ 400,000 from an affected shipping line. Who is going to bear these losses?,” the premier questioned. He thanked the Navy Commander and the Sri Lanka Navy and commended them for the excellent manner of handling the situation.

Strike called off

Following the incident the Trade Unions of the Magampura Port had a meeting with Minister Ranatunga and subsequently called off the strike.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer I. K. Omesh, deputy Chairman of the Hambantota Port Workers’ Union said, owing to the Minister’s assurance they have called off the strike for the present and are hopeful of the assurance of their jobs.

When questioned as to why they couldn’t do the same when he gave such assurance on the first day, Omesh said, they had lost faith in him.

However, they were assured of job safety and have resumed daily work normally. He said, if these promises are not fulfilled they would resort to further trade union action.