Industry forgot the working class in the Covid-19 rebound | Sunday Observer

Industry forgot the working class in the Covid-19 rebound

31 May, 2020

It’s sad to lose a unionist, especially at this time — but that’s another story. Workers are having the toughest of times after the Covid-19 induced economic slump. The sudden death of union leader Arumugam Thondaman in the midst of all this may be rather depressing, particularly in the estate sector …

My grouse is that everybody is writing about the post Covid-19 economic recovery process in the newspapers these days. It has become a cottage industry, maybe particularly because most of these mercantile-MBA types are confined to their cottages during the lean days of the waning lockdown.

Seems as if all those writers are interested in the bottom line, because they are in it for themselves. Is there a single one of these people interested in the plight of the workers, and the nightmarish anxieties of the labour class?

It’s why particularly in the midst of this Covid-19 induced economic slump, it’s sad to be nostalgic about old school unionists such as the late Mr. Thondaman’s grandfather Savumiyamoorthy Thondaman, and those of the likes of Colvin R de Silva, Bala Tampoe and Sarath Muttetuwegama, for instance.

These people gave a damn. I wonder whether the top echelon of business leadership of today, or at least the specialists who write for them, actually give a damn?


The names mentioned here are either of unionists per se even though they dabbled in other things such as politics, or those such as Sarath Muttetuwegama who was a committed leftist with real empathy for the predicament of the labour classes. Here is a refreshing anecdote about the late lawyer Sarath that hopefully would set the tone for the rest of this article:

Muttetuwegama used to take the train with his junior lawyer whenever he had a case in the outskirts, such as Anuradhapura or Badulla, in those early days when practitioners had regular assignments in the outstations.

Once, when he travelled to Anuradhapura, he checked into the Nuwara Wewa Rest with his understudy, and then both of them took a taxi to the Courthouse the next morning.

Apparently this shocked his client, who promptly sent his Benz and told Mr. Muttetuwegama to use that car to travel to Court the next time. But, Muttetuwegama was not inclined to take up the offer and his client was shocked to see the lawyer politician arriving in Court the next morning too, by taxi. The client asked his lawyer why he had not used the Benz that was provided, and Sarath’s reply was ‘do you want our services, or do you want us to come to Court in a Benz?’.

These were genuine people who were not interested in the frills and the trappings, and though all politicians may have some measure of self interest, these are folk who had a real concern for the plight of the mass of working people.

One wonders whether those captains and spokesmen of industry who write about Covid-19 today are interested in the frills and the trappings and nothing else by contrast? Is it why none of their theories about the post Covid-19 economic recovery spare a thought for the working class?


Industry and the economy must recover, but the bottom line is that the owning classes would have to make some sacrifices on behalf of the labour. But the grand recovery plans that make use of the modern disciplines of data science and whatnot, don’t seem to have any space for this element of compassion.

That’s why the old leftists of the calibre of Muttetuwegama and Colvin and other union champions such as Tampoe will be sorely missed. It’s not as if there are no unionists today. But who is articulating an overarching vision for the recovery of the working classes in the post Covid-19 phase, when all that the industry mandarins are concerned about seems to be their own recovery, and the survival of their industries?

True, they will say that if their businesses survive the working classes will have some hope because their jobs are dependent on the sustenance of the various economic sectors. That’s all well and good in theory but it smacks of course of those well worn trickle-down economic fables.

If industry does not have any element of compassion-driven programs for the working class, the social contract will probably be in tatters because there seems to be an underestimation of the general lot of the wage earning labour class and the daily wage earner in Covid-19’s aftermath. People are hurting, and that is to be expected.

It’s not the fault of the Government, it is the fault of the virus. Some UNP politician — Mujibur Rahman if I remember right — had said that people are in dire straits. So they are — and is that rocket science?

It’s obvious except to the totally dimwitted that the kind of shut down that was necessitated by the pandemic will create new levels of poverty in a developing country such as ours. The Government can only be credited for minimising the damage. But the labour classes took a hit. They would, when all economic activity comes to a standstill and the world economy struggles for life as well. So what does Mujibur Rahman expect?


The people know better than to blame the Government for their hardships in the face of the necessary shut downs during the pandemic. The people are probably aware that this was the second war that the Rajapaksas fought, along with the military, and they are probably prepared to reward this relatively new Government for staving off the worst effects of the pandemic.

But, the recovery of industry sectors is another story. If the captains of industry act as if economic recovery is all data science based and their only concern is the bottom line, some sort of external regulation would be necessary to see that these so called industry leaders make the compulsory sacrifices on behalf of the working classes. Yes, nobody wants industry killed off by not being able to balance the books. They will have to think of ways to make their enterprises cost-effective in times of extreme economic malaise.

But the element of social engineering will be missed at their own peril. If the labour classes are kept afloat in these difficult times, industry will have a hope for the future.

But if industry leadership considers labour as a mere detail, just one of four factors such as capital, infrastructure, etc that goes into the makings of a product, that will be the death knell for the recovery.

This is where unionists will have a real role to play. They will have to negotiate terms for their comrades without putting the businesses themselves at peril. It is understood that industry sectors will have tremendous problems. They will have to manage the workforce but still keep industry viable when the markets abroad have all but disappeared.

They will have to muster all their resources to keep the labour classes afloat and that requires commitment and not excuses. But the data science and economics based approach to any of this does not seem to consider the workers as the most important component in this equation.

The pundits are talking of a green-recovery forgetting that human capital is the country’s most important asset by far. Environmental considerations are not to be ignored of course but what requires priority is that people are able to live, when things are falling apart all around them.

We need champions for humanity to get past this, but until the cows come home, there are people who want to solve all of this in terms of game theory.

It’s no game. The country needs fighters of the calibre of the Thondmans, Muttetuwegamas and Tampoes who will see the recovery through people’s eyes and not in terms of quarterly figures or data.

If industry refuses to think of workers, the Government will have to step in and jolly well compel ownerships to make workers the priority in the post Covid-19 recovery campaign.