Railways fiasco | Sunday Observer

Railways fiasco

Sri Lankan commuters, particularly, of the railways recently faced a week-long strike by several unions of the Sri Lanka Railway Department. With over 2,500 employees of the Department, including engine drivers, guards, controllers and station Masters embarking on the strike action the railway services came to a screeching halt leaving passengers stranded and students sitting the GCE O/L examinations inconvenienced.

The Department was forced to cancel over 350 daily trains and offices were forced to allow their employees to leave work early due to transportation issues, and parcels along with other goods too were held up as a result. While passengers expected the matter to resolve in a matter of days, however the strike dragged on with unions sticking to their guns in seeking a resolution for their grievances. The crux of the issue: a salary anomaly due to a Cabinet decision made in 2015.

Finally, this week with the President promptly appointing a four-member Ministerial Committee led by the Minister of Special Assignments, Sarath Amunugama the issue was resolved at the first discussion held between the parties on Wednesday.

As the unions commended the Committee for understanding their issues with the strike being called off, promises were made by the Ministers to resolve the problems faced by them. However, the issues within the Department are far from over with it facing various issues in staff recruitment, training and salaries. Declared to be the results of past ad hoc decisions made by officials the Ministry is now said to be in the process of resolving the problems created to provide a better railway service.

Salary anomaly

According to the Co-Convenor of the Railway Trade Union Alliance (RTUA) Lal Ariyaratne, the issue is one that has been ongoing since 2015 when employees belonging to the ‘Primary’ salary scale were entered into the ‘Secondary’ salary scale the strikers belonged to.

“This caused a series of issues, such as, insubordination, with junior staffers refusing to take orders,” Ariyaratne said. “They were now in the same salary scale as us and saw their supervising officers as equals,” he said, adding that as a result the salary anomaly caused was brought before the National Salaries and Cadre Commission.

“They did not give us a favourable response,” he said. In fact, according to Ariyaratne, it was the Secretary to the Prime Minister Saman Ekanayake with good intentions who got involved to resolve the issue. “He saw the fairness of our request and therefore proposed that our basic salary should be in line with the first salary of the tertiary salary level” Ariyaratne explained.

However, in July 2017 after two months of deliberation, the Unions claim that the basic salary of Rs. 15,015 was proposed by the Commission down from the current Rs. 16,500. As the proposal enraged the employees once again called for Ekanayake’s involvement.

Finally, although a Cabinet paper was presented last week to resolve this matter, making a decision on the matter was deferred. “It was due to the pressure of another union,” Ariyaratne said adding that this moved them to embark on a strike action.

As the O/L exams drew near, however, Ariyaratne said, their intention was not to inconvenience the students. “This is why we started the strike on December 7 thinking the issue would be resolved by the examination date,” he said. However, with the Department heads calling for retired staff and claiming they are able to commence services, the unions claim that the strike dragged on.

Ad hoc decisions

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, General Manager of Railways Mahanama Abeywickrama said the strike and all grievances of the staff are results of ad hoc decisions made in the past. “Salary increments were given without examining other cadre levels,” he said adding that the strike was due to these decisions which the Ministry of Transport has now had to unravel under the rule of the new government.

According to Abeywickrama, previous demands made by the unions were given in an ad hoc manner without studying the other cadre levels, nature of the jobs and other relevant information. “When salaries were given to one cadre level no revision was made to others,” he said adding that he believes a proper study of the Railway service should be done to resolve these issues.

“It is a special service and cannot be compared with another government service,” he said adding that these factors should be taken into consideration. “A salary cannot be decided by merely looking at qualifications in the trade, the expertise and nature of the job are important as well,” he said.

While other issues regarding hiring new staff, the scheme of recruitment and training remain, the Department, with the help of the Minister of Transport Nimal Siripala Silva is said to be in the process of resolving these matters. “We have a serious issue of hiring staff for managerial levels,” he said. According to Abeywickrama while there is a shortage of staff new employees for positions of drivers, for example, have been hired now and are being trained. “Recruitment had completely stalled in the past,” he said, explaining that though new employees have been hired they are still undergoing training. Abeywickrama confirmed that most issues will be resolved in the near future.

Proposed solutions

According to the Unions, the salary they demand is what is due to them. “We work under harsh conditions without any entitlements such as, half days, short leave or overtime” Ariyaratne claimed. However, he says he is now satisfied with the answers given by the Ministerial Committee. “This was not a political move, if it was we would not have agreed to the proposal at once,” he said.

According to Mahanama Abeywickrama, it has now been proposed that the Railway services, including the Departments of Health and Education, be made closed departments. “The salaries of a department will not affect others then,” he said adding that the Ministerial Committee said the salary anomaly would be resolved through this proposal in the future to prevent further strike action.

“The Department has many other problems due to past decisions,” the General Manager said, however, confirming that the Department is determined to resolve these for a more productive Railway service.

Pix: Rukmal Gamage and Saman Mendis