Political hand at the root of ‘strike wave’? | Sunday Observer

Political hand at the root of ‘strike wave’?

29 September, 2019
Work at a standstill in many offices - File pic
Work at a standstill in many offices - File pic

A wave of strikes has hit the streets seriously affecting the general public and paralyzing the State machinery. Transport workers, health services, teachers and principals, administrative service workers and nonacademic staff were the main actors in these strikes which commenced earlier this month.

A Cabinet meeting that was called by the President on Friday, September 27 night to address the problem, mainly the train strikes, resulted in appointing another committee to look into the salary anomalies that are the main bone of contention among striking railway workers. The Cabinet subcommittee appointed to look into the matter comprises of Finance Minister Magala Samaraweera, Vajira Abeywardena, Rajitha Senarathne, Ranjith Maddumabanara and Deputy minister of transport Ashok Abeysinghe.

Lal Ariyarathne the co-convener of the Railway Trade Union Alliance (RTUA) told the Sunday Observer that the salary increment recommended by the commission (which states that salaries should be increased by rupees 3,000 for those in public sector) does not apply to them. The main demand put forward by the Railway trade union is to bring their salaries on par with others (and not merely increased by Rs. 1,900). Train strikes were launched on Wednesday (25) and will continue until their demands are met, they say.

The train strike which started based on salary anomalies is continuing for the third day with only a few trains running, for the benefit of the working public. Only eight trains worked from Kandy, Mahawa, Chilaw, Galle and Avissawella. On Thursday, 38 train trips had been cancelled as a result of the strike.

Teachers and Principals trade unions initiated a ‘sick leave’ strike from Thursday. They further stated that if their demands are not met they will launch a strike from the 7 October for 5 days continuously.

The spate of strikes that were being threatened from earlier this month escalated in the last week with The Sri Lanka Administrative Service Association (SLASA) launching a strike paralyzing the daily work at crucial points in Departments such as Immigration and Emigration, Registration of Persons, Department of Pensions, Department of Motor Traffic and offices attached to Divisional Secretariats.

SLASA also based its trade union action on current salary anomalies. The strike launched at the department of Immigration and Emigration did not go down well with the general public,as they demanded that they be served without being inconvenienced. In response the department’s one day service continued without any disturbance, but not for long, as the strike took a different approach the next day.

SLASA will recommence their trade union action tomorrow if their demands are not met positively by the government.

State Minister of Transport and Civil Aviasion Ashok Abeysinghe speaking to the Sunday Observer said that it was the current government that has increased salaries for employees in the state sector since independence.

“Today, a state sector employee takes home about 107 percent more than what they used to back in 2015,” the Minister said. This calculation is prior to the recent increment of 3,000 rupees for State employees starting from the lowest scale employee. Currently the state sector consists of over one million employees without taking into account those attached to the armed forces and Sri Lanka police.

He reiterated that a railway driver takes home over three hundred thousand including over time claims at the end of a month. A station master takes home over two hundred thousand per month.

The Railway currently runs at a Rs. 7 billion loss, which begs the question if it is really reasonable for them to launch strike actions gravely inconveniencing the general public over two million of whom use train services for their commuting purposes.

During the current government’s reign they have invested over 500 billion rupees to enhance train services.

“Six double power sets were imported from India. Nine power sets have been purchased from China to be used in the up-country route. Another 10 engines for the up-country route has also been ordered and are yet to arrive in the country. Furthermore, flatbed compartments and oil tankers, 160 compartments are newly ordered while 200 more are revamped. These are other investments to enhance the train service,” Minister Abeysinghe said.

Further investments have been made to enhance the existing lanes to double, to serve the public better.

Except for the teachers and principals strike which demands a salary hike for a teacher who receives a total of about thirty thousand rupees per month, one should really question if there is a real need to launch collective strikes paralyzing the government machinery, or is it done for some political purpose given that the country is now in election mode.

The time where Trade unions that actually fought for the rights of the people under the leadership of those such as Bala Tampoe, seems very far off from the current trade union scenario which is mainly politically driven.

Leader of the Communist party D. E. W Gunasekara is of the view that the current trade union action is generally weak compared to the forties, sixties, seventies and even eighties. The Union leadership at that time acted with a sense of responsibility, gave sufficient notice to the government, and there was never a sporadic type of strike.

These ‘wild cat strikes’ are not allowed under the trade union laws in Sri Lanka. Trade Union action must only follow after failed negations and giving proper notice to the government of the day on any intention of a strike.

“As far as the health sector was concerned there had never been strikes in the health sector. Even the Trade union leadership would take into account the plight of the patients. Other trade unions will bring up the issue but make sure that the health sector is not affected. Today irrespective of their status, doctors (even specialists practicing) are involved in trade union action. They don’t consider the possible plight of the patients. That sense of responsibility is not there,” Gunasekara said.

The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) has repeatedly been launching trade union action gravely inconveniencing the public who very much depend on free medical services provided by the government. The GMOA has not shied away from openly showing its allegiance to the former regime where the nexus of political maneuvering in its trade union actions are so visible.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer another factor aptly pointed out by Gunasekara was that “they should be sensitive to the financial situation of the country.”

“The idea as far as the resources are concerned, the government revenue has come down to almost 12 percent of the GDP. Up to 1977, it was up to 24 percent. Now its 100 percent down which mean the monies don’t come to the Treasury as much as it used to. Therefore, they must put forward some alternatives,” he said.

According to him, trade union negotiations of his day included alternatives to the ministry of finance to show the government various options that they can use.

He also pointed out that it is important that the ministers and politicians should stay away from public service appointments.

“I refused to give letters of appointment in my ministry. That is a job for the Secretary of the Ministry. Today, even appointments for labourers are given by the President or the Prime Minister.

This is the level of politicization. As a result, the ministry secretary loses his or her authority. This has been revealed in numerous commissions and is an accumulated effect of politicization,” he said.