Focus/Spotlight

Working class face challenges

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa and Tharumalee Silva

Thousands of trade unionists and protesters from rival political camps marched through the cities around the world in a series of May Day rallies on Wednesday (1) to fight for a range of improvements to workers’ rights, but Sri Lanka was an exception; political parties were told not to hold public gatherings due to security reasons.

The decision to not hold May Day rallies to commemorate International Labour Day in the country this year was taken by major political parties and several civil organisations in view of the fluid security situation following the Easter Sunday attacks which killed over 250 people. However, the trade unionists alleged that they had lost the only opportunity in the year to raise their questions on May Day.

According to trade unionists, May Day was not just a holiday, but a day to raise the issues that they were going through and it was also a good platform to gain public attention for the matters that are not only related to workers, but affected the nation as a whole.

Modulated May Day celebrations

Even though political parties initially cancelled their arrangements to hold May Day rallies, several political parties – including the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – held small-scale indoor rallies, which more resembled meetings, at several places in Colombo on Wednesday (1). Unlike in previous years, the main focus of the majority of these meetings was the prevailing security situation of the country.

The JVP’s May Day celebration was held at its party headquarters in Pelawatte and attended by party leaders, members, and unions. At the meeting, JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva stressed that the party had taken the decision not to hold a large-scale May Day rally in Colombo, considering the current situation of the country. He said: “The JVP doesn’t take political decisions according to Government decisions, but at a point when the Government failed to defeat the extremist terrorists in the country, the party did not want to gather the public and put their lives at risk.”

The SLFP held its May Day meeting at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI), which was attended by SLFP Leader President Maithripala Sirisena, General Secretary MP Dayasiri Jayasekara, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) Leader MP Dinesh Gunawardena, Prof. Tissa Vitharana, and MPs Mahinda Amaraweera, Duminda Dissanayake, and Nimal Siripala de Silva.

Meanwhile, the SLPP joined the May Day celebrations of the Opposition held at Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte Municipal Council auditorium, to which former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and party members participated.

The UNP, however, did not plan celebrations, but Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe held a meeting with civil society activists at Temple Trees and explained the current security and economic conditions of the country.

May Day promises

Meanwhile, the Cabinet of Ministers on Tuesday (30) approved a proposal to increase the minimum monthly wage of private sector employees to Rs. 12,500 from Rs. 10,000. The minimum monthly wage of private sector employees was last raised to Rs. 10,000 in January 2016.

The same legislation set the minimum daily wage at Rs. 400. The cabinet paper was presented by the President on the request of Non-Cabinet Minister of Labour and Trade Union Relations Ravindra Samaraweera.

Recently, National Labour Advisory Council recommended that the monthly wage should be increased to Rs. 12,500 and daily wage to Rs. 500 considering the present cost of living. However, private sector trade unions have been urging the Government to increase the monthly wage to Rs. 25,000.

Challenges everywhere

According to the Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka’s population reached 21.7 million in June last year and the unemployment rate of the country increased to 4.6 %. Sri Lanka’s Labour Force Participation Rate increased to 52.2 % in December 2018 from 51.8 % in the previous quarter. Sri Lanka’s labour force participation rate is updated quarterly and is available from June 2012 to December 2018, indicating an average rate of 53.5%.

Meanwhile, several trade unionists spoke to The Sunday Morning about the issues faced by the workers around the country.
All Ceylon General Ports Employees Union (ACGPEU) General Secretary Chandrasiri Mahagamage said: “There are lots of issues faced by the port workers including salary anomalies and issues pertaining to recruiting new employees as well as promoting.”

At present, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) was running at losses even though the Government promised that by releasing the Hambantota Port from their court there would be a million-dollar saving for the authority, Mahagamage stressed.

The operations at the Hambantota Port had already become a threat to the SLPA, as the Chinese companies were utilising advanced technologies for their operations. As a result, the SLPA loses business opportunities, he added.

“This not only affects the SLPA workers, but also (indirectly) the whole country, because the authority was one of the highest income generators of the Government. It not only paid the salaries of the authority, but also of the state sector at large,” he said, adding that the unionists were waiting to raise these issues at the May Day rallies, but were deprived of the opportunity this year.

Speaking about the long-awaited and much talked-about rights of the estate workers, including the increment of minimum wages of the workers, the All Ceylon Estate Workers’ Union (ACEWU) General Secretary J.M.A. Premaratne said: “Even though the unions struggled since 2015 to increase the minimum wage of the estate workers to Rs. 1,000, the Government failed to fulfil the promises it made.”

“Instead, the estate workers had to agree to Rs. 750 per day, giving up their demand for Rs. 1,000. The estate workers were cast aside, disappointed by that decision and therefore, we were planning to restart the campaign for Rs. 1,000 on 1 May. But unfortunately, we had to postpone it because of the situation that the country suddenly had to face,” he stressed.

In the beginning, private sector workers in this country did not receive a salary, which made it economically insufficient – or even impossible – to survive in this country.

UNP affiliated Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) CPC Branch General Secretary Ananda Palitha told The Sunday Morning that the Government was able to protect the lives of the private sector employees. He claimed that the JSS was able to protect and enrich the lives of employees in the private sector.

“Political corruption and corruption in all state institutions is always a hot topic to talk about, but no one steps forward to speak on behalf of the private sector. When the price of essential services increases, there is no way for private companies to increase the salaries of their employees. The public sector goes on strike every time they need a salary increment, but the private sector cannot do that.

“With the increase in all basic services, we have seen a significant decrease in private sector salaries, which does not allow private sector employees to save or lead a comfortable life for the amount of hard work and time they put in,” he stressed.