Strikes, protests and demonstrations: An intolerable public nuisance | Sunday Observer

Strikes, protests and demonstrations: An intolerable public nuisance

6 February, 2022

Not a day passes in Sri Lanka without some section of the public service, habitually led by trade unions, staging demonstrations in front of a prominent landmark. Over the past year, strikes and related demonstrations have become common occurrences throughout the country. Whether the demands are justifiable or timely, the massive waste of time and money on the average citizen is incalculable.

From the tiniest reason to a policy issue, staging demonstrations or strikes, work to rule, and other similar trade union actions have marred the general public’s well-being during the past several decades. These protests are getting louder, and the strikes are becoming more frequent by the day.

According to historical data, the first trade union was established in Sri Lanka in 1893, and the Trade Union Ordinance was enacted in 1935.The current number of registered trade unions in Sri Lanka is over 2000, of which 54.5 percent are in the public sector, 27.5 percent in public corporations, and 18% in the private sector. The total number of members stands at approximately 10 percent of the total workforce.

Strikes of any form or magnitude cause inordinate inconvenience to the public. Trade unions intentionally harass the general public in various forms to put pressure on the Government.

Although there are many other forms of protest available to them to force the Government to meet their demands, trade unions are aware that the easiest methods are to hold demonstrations in public places to block roads or completely stop working.

Apart from the actual intentions of the demands, most of the strikes and demonstrations are motivated by direct or indirect political manipulation. Although the protestors are not aware of this fact, the leaders of trade unions who are affiliated with one political party or the other intend to gain political mileage almost all the time to enter mainstream politics or gain other favours.

Average citizen

For the average citizen, life is difficult enough as it stands now. Therefore, there is a limit to which a common citizen can allocate mental bandwidth for every demonstration, activist-led protest, and strike. To them, this is too much of a nuisance.

For example, the entire country witnessed the reactions of several road users at a recent demonstration by principals in front of the Education Ministry. All the road users and bystanders were agitated, and some of them openly challenged some of the so-called principals who were acting like common hoodlums. The policemen at the location were helpless.

Sri Lanka, perhaps, is the only country where the general public is inconvenienced by trade unionists or other activists on matters that are not in any way relevant to them in any way. For example, university students protest about everything other than education development. Also, medical officers initiate strikes against Government policies but never for the welfare of health facilities for ordinary people. Many such irrelevant trade union actions have been witnessed in the recent past.

During the past year, strikes and other similar activities were conducted by medical doctors, electrical engineers, nurses, paramedics and other health workers, teachers and principals, postal workers, petroleum and electricity-related unions, and many others.

The Government seems to have no control over these activities, and evidently, the presidential involvement is visibly non-existent.

Despite the common expectation of the citizenry that tough leadership is required, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is adopting a somewhat soft stance on these protests. The general public has not seen him enforce legitimate power on protests, strikes, and other activities during his tenure. However, the vast majority of ordinary people sometimes justifiably expect him to be sterner with these types of incidents that cause public distress.

Strikes are critical to the Government as they give a section of the population the right to disrupt governance, most often for political gains. Either the protestors are guided and controlled directly by Opposition politicians, or they discreetly creep into independent protests and strikes.

Principal job

Habitually, in Sri Lanka, the Opposition considers that their principal job is to protest, dislocate, oppose, or vandalise at every given opportunity. This has been the practice in Sri Lanka for the past several decades. The main objective of the politically manoeuvred strikes is to attract votes in the oncoming elections.

Political parties are in the habit of complicating even simple situations by creating a huge uproar to draw public attention. Plenty of recent examples can be cited to prove that the protestors completely ignore public well-being and are conscious only of their gains.

The most frequent and commonest form of protest is to intentionally block roads, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens. As there are no forced actions by law enforcement, the protestors adopt a free for all approach during these activities.

Also, when essential services for the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, such as health, electricity, railways, and transport, are interrupted, the citizens are the innocent victims, not the Government or public officials who are actually responsible. Strikers and protestors simply take the citizens to ransom to blackmail the authorities that they are protesting against.

For example, the recent trade union action of locomotive engine operators, where they stopped trains between stations, was the ugliest and meanest inhuman act reported in the history of strikes.


News sources reported that principal job were forced to get off in the middle of nowhere and find alternative transport. This was done without any warning to passengers, completely disregarding ethical principles.

The mockery is that all these protests and strikes take place amid the infamous and discreditable inefficiency of public sector workers. The common belief is that the public sector is inundated with corruption and malpractices.

Except for a few self-funded institutions, the public sector employs over 1.5 million people and consumes an immensely large amount of public funds for salaries and many other perks that they receive.

The protestors and strikers conveniently forget that their livelihood is provided by the citizenry that pays direct or indirect taxes to the Government. Society as a whole observes that the quality of public service is deteriorating continuously, and they question, with good reason, whether it is worth maintaining the public sector anymore.

Strikes take their toll in many forms, whether they are short or long, often with far-reaching implications. Sometimes the repercussions of strikes are irreparable in the context of monetary losses, a fact that is either ignored or disregarded by the strikers.

The right to express opposition to the Government is important in a democratic country such as Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, if strikes and demonstrations become too frequent, disruption to public life cannot be ignored.

Regrettably, to this writer’s knowledge, there is no mechanism in place to curb these activities even when the negative effects are evident. The actual damage done to non-strikers in the same fraternity or the public, in general, has never been intellectually estimated as yet by any relevant authority.

At present, there are no specific legal provisions to regulate demonstrations or protests as long as they are peaceful. The protestors and strikers are protected by several local and international covenants. Hence, seeking judicial intervention in these assemblies is not always possible. The police have attempted to obtain restraining orders from the courts without much success.

Desired results

In reality, strikes and protests rarely produce the desired results for the strikers’ or protestors’ demands. Instead, every single time they protest, the result is that they cause damage or inconvenience to the general public or inflict losses on the overall economy.

Also, regrettably, thousands of man-hours are wasted by both protestors and those who get caught in the middle.

Most often, unlike rare private sector strikes, the motivations and consequences are political. Whenever trade union strikes take place, the economic impact affects the country as a whole.

Irrespective of the demands, whether they are justifiable or not, strikers invariably become subject to public wrath. Without a doubt, trade unions have played an important role in historical labour rights dialogues. Nevertheless, currently, the entire citizenry is completely fed-up with incessant disruptions to everyday life and expects solutions from authorities that are responsible immediately.