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Turning demands into reforms

a year ago

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Before Sri Lanka could take a breath after dealing with the prolonged teacher-principal salary anomaly issue, public sector trade unions that represent close to one million employees, who constitute around two-thirds of the entire public sector workforce, are now demanding salary increments as a remedy to the increasing cost of living. Reiterating a warning issued last week, the Sri Lanka Government Officers’ Trade Union Association (SLGOTUA), on 22 November, said the two-week ultimatum they have given to the Government is expiring on 29 November, and that the failure to heed their demands will compel them to go for an islandwide strike. To make matters worse, they also said they are determined to extend their trade union actions beyond a one-day strike, depending on the Government’s response. In response, the Government has pointed out the practical difficulties pertaining to increasing salaries by Rs. 18,000, as demanded by the SLGOTUA. However, in the event the trade unions decide to launch a strike, it is going to be a bigger issue than the issue of the teacher-principal salary anomaly. Therefore, while one must sympathise with the plight of the Government due to the myriad difficulties and challenges it faces, it has to take more measures than merely stating that it cannot, under any circumstances, provide for the public sector workers’ demands. The bitter truth is that in order to allocate more funds for the welfare of one sector of the population or the workforce, the Government has to find new ways to get more money as revenue or loans. The cost of boosting the existing revenue sources such as tax revenue and repaying loans has to be ultimately borne by the public, which is highly likely to intensify the economic burden on the people in general. As such, easing the economic burden on one sector of the population or the workforce – which, in this case, is increasing the salaries of public sector employees – has a significant impact on the economy of the general public, or the national economy, which, if not done, can in turn further exacerbate inflation. These demands, which are likely to intensify in the coming few months amidst increasing cost of living and decreasing government revenue, call for the Government to think beyond the traditional ways of addressing the cost of living issue, and to adopt more innovative remedies and find solutions other than the most obvious yet difficult one – salary increments. Also, as a starting point, the Government has to acknowledge the fact that needing more income to face the increasing cost of living is not just an issue confined to public sector employees, but is an issue faced by the general public, and to therefore widen its scope to look at this crisis as a crisis that affects the entire country, because the failure to look at the wider issue has led to different sectors voicing their demands one after another, making this a never-ending issue. The best example is the spate of demands for salary increments by health sector employees during the past few weeks, and now, by around one million public employees, that came after the teacher-principal salary anomaly was resolved or under discussion. In a context where the entire world is affected by worsening inflation, international economists have presented various policy and practical alternatives that require little financial resources to address the cost of living issue and thereby reduce the need for more money, with a greater focus on reducing the cost of living and increasing sources of income, instead of increasing salaries. Among them are relaxing laws and policies causing the prices of essentials to rise; introducing and promoting alternative, cheaper goods and services to replace goods and services of which the prices have soared; introducing and promoting small-scale household industries to strengthen household economies, which can also contribute to national production; promoting credible internet-based employment opportunities which, in Sri Lanka’s case, will not only alleviate the economic burden on the people, but can also help manage dwindling foreign reserves; and giving professional knowledge and guidance to public and private sector industries that are on the brink of collapse due to the lack of such support. These are all a meagre number of solutions international economists have presented in order to help people manage the cost of living by reducing the gap between income and expenses. To do that, however, the Government has to work more closely with independent economic experts – not only ruling party politicians who, before becoming politicians, were economists and are issuing pro-Government recommendations instead of pro-people or pro-economy recommendations. Also, as a policy-level decision, the Government should look into relaxing the restrictions that prevent public sector employees from engaging in a second job or getting a second income. However, that comes with a greater responsibility to take measures to ensure that such activities do not affect their performance as public sector employees. However, those are mid and long-term measures which require time and proper planning, extending across more than one sector of the population or the workforce, and therefore looking into other alternatives should commence as soon as possible. When it comes to addressing the demands for salary increments, which require swifter measures to prevent another crisis in the public sector, first and foremost, the Government has to have a stance which is flexible in structure but firm in implementation, as to what sort of relief measures it can and cannot take as a debt and inflation-ridden country, and stick to it. Unlike in the case of the teacher-principal salary anomaly issue, the Government should not change its stance at every round of discussion, but should be accommodating to identify needs and lapses. Also, finding solutions to the demands should be based on it. The need for such policies, especially in the decision-making process, could be seen in the Government’s ill-conceived plan to go organic, which seems to be firm but not accommodating. There is no doubt or debate that the Government has a responsibility to ease the economic burden on the people, including public sector employees who are demanding salary increments as well as private and informal sector employees who are facing other issues such as job security on top of the rising cost of living. However, giving relief to one party should not increase the economic burden on another, and the Government has to get rid of the traditional approach of getting one loan to repay another.

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