brand logo
The absent voice in labour law reform consultations

The absent voice in labour law reform consultations

03 Nov 2023 | BY Sumudu Chamara

  • Female TU reps note counterproductive, ineffectual and detrimental impact of excluding female workforce sentiments from labour law reform process 

Even though improving labour laws is a necessity in the current socio-economic climate, the manner in which the Government is attempting to achieve it through the ongoing labour law reform process is questionable, and could in fact be counterproductive, ineffective, and detrimental. One reason is that the consultations held to identify the necessary reforms have allegedly failed to take into account the workforce’s true sentiments. In addition, some of the proposed reforms are ludicrous, as they have no potential to strengthen the country’s workforce, especially female workers, and are more likely to allow employers to further exploit workers.

These concerns were raised during a discussion held in Colombo this week, where representatives of several female led trade unions (TU) voiced their opposition against the Government’s approach to reforming the labour laws. They contended that the existing consultation process excludes female labour leaders and representatives from different unions despite making decisions for primarily female dominated industries and sectors, and in this context, demanded a new and inclusive consultation process ahead of the possible adoption of the proposed law reforms. 

The event was attended by speakers including the Dabindu Collective’s Chamila Thushari, the Textile, Garment and Clothing Workers’ Union’s Lalitha Dedduwakumara, the Commercial and Industrial Workers’ Union’s attorney Swasthika Arulingam, and the Standup Movement’s Ashila Dandeniya.

Law reform consultations and worker’s representation

The speakers pointed out a number of issues concerning the process that the Government, i.e. the Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment, had adopted in order to determine the necessary law reforms. One of their main concerns is that the Government did not consult female-led trade unions and female workers during the process of drafting the new labour law, which Thushari said will have a devastating effect on the wages of workers.

Adding that it was undertaking a comprehensive review of the labour laws, the Ministry publicly called for inputs on labour law reforms from stakeholders and interested parties. The proposed law reforms met with criticism from various parties including trade unions and various workers’ groups, civil society groups, and human rights activists, who claimed that the proposed reforms do not meet the country’s and the workforce’s needs. As per some of the key concerns with regard to reforming the labour laws that were presented by the Ministry, while the proposed reforms include steps such as introducing legal provisions to prevent discrimination in employment or in the workplace and sexual violence, they further focus on part-time employment, flexible working hours, occupational health, and paternity leave. However, steps such as relaxing the existing legal provisions concerning night-time work for female workers have received mixed responses, while proposals for legal provisions that require that the workers notify the employer before the date of commencement of strikes and obtain majority consent of union members for the strike have attracted criticism.

With regard to this questionable consultation process, Arulingam said: “At the beginning, the Minister (Manusha Nanayakkara) and the Labour Department invited us for the consultations, and some of us went for the first tier of consultations. We went there and requested one thing. It concerned the process that has been set up by the Government, or the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC). It is an internationally recognised tripartite process. This is the process through which labour law reforms have been formulated so far. There were talks in the NLAC that females should be included in the NLAC, and former Labour Minister, attorney Nimal Siripala de Silva also made a promise in this regard. While all these discussions and processes were going on to make the NLAC inclusive, the new Minister came in, and on his own created this new consultation process. Then, within one month, produced an entire draft amending 13 labour laws grossly affecting females in the process.”

In response to a question on the female led unions’ involvement in the above mentioned consultation process, Thushari added that from the beginning, they were against the entire process that had been adopted by the Government, and that therefore, no submissions were made by them during the process. She further said: “The Labour Commissioner General had invited all trade unions to present their opinions regarding these labour law reforms. The NLAC is the entity that we trusted in and dealt with at that time. However, our female representative in that entity (Arulingam) was removed. We did not take part in this process to express our opposition to that.”

During the event, the speakers alleged that just months before the labour laws were brought before the NLAC, the Ministry of Labour removed several representatives of independent unions from the NLAC, including Arulingam, the first female to ever represent a labour union in the Government appointed body. As a result, no female labour leader was a part of the official consultation process, and this, they stressed, is of particular concern, given that several of the proposed labour reforms will disproportionately affect female workers. Commenting on this, Arulingam said that policy-making seems to have become a men’s business, and that historically, females have been excluded from the NLAC, but that even after one female representative was included this time in the NLAC membership, it is strange that Nanayakkara has removed the only female representation before going ahead with the new labour law reforms for female workers.

Meanwhile, while calling for a new consultation, it was announced that female-led unions have reached out to allies throughout the Sri Lankan and global labour movements. They added that they are planning to send a letter to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in support of a complaint filed more than a year ago about Sri Lanka’s violation of the ILO convention on tripartite consultation. All female leaders reiterated that female workers would not receive equal rights and true freedom of association until female-led unions join the official conversation about labour laws in Sri Lanka.

Potential adverse impacts on workers and the economy

During the event, the speakers cautioned that in the event the Government proceeded with the proposed, detrimental law reforms, it would deal a heavy blow to the country’s economic crisis affected workforce, thereby further weakening the economy. They pointed out a number of unfavourable outcomes of some of the proposed reforms including the legal provisions pertaining to females working at night, strikes related law reforms and also wages.

Noting that garment sector workers, a majority of whom are females, will be forced to work longer hours for lesser wages, Thushari added: “Workers need to be paid overtime allowances for them to be able to earn a living wage. However, the compressed work weeks proposed in the reforms will stretch the working day to 12, 16, or even 18 hours, with no additional compensation for overtime. This is of grave concern as the new laws will force workers to work more for minimum pay.” 

The impacts of the proposed law reforms on trade union related activities, which pertain to the fundamental right of the freedom of association (guaranteed in Sri Lanka’s Constitution) is another concern pointed out by the speakers. According to Dedduwakumara, the proposed new labour laws are extremely hostile to trade unions and their right to the freedom of association. Alleging that workers in Free Trade Zones (FTZs) face retaliation when they form or join unions, she added that female workers, on the other hand, face added risks of verbal and sexual harassment. The new laws will make unionising even more difficult, which, as per Dedduwakumara is because in the new reforms, the minimum number for a trade union registration is proposed to be increased from seven to 100. She added that the new labour laws also present a threat to a trade union’s right to protest, making it possible to put a worker in jail for simply speaking up against workplace injustices, while also emphasising that these barriers to unionising are a violation of the females’ right to the freedom of association. 

Meanwhile, Dandeniya also spoke of the adverse impacts of the proposed law reforms: “Part-time work, flexible work, and manpower labour systems (which involve temporary labour contracts) are touted as ways to help female workers have flexibility in their work arrangements, as per these new reforms. But, such non-standard labour contracts are devoid of the benefits and stability of permanent, full-time work. The new laws are aimed at dismantling job protections and benefits by portraying part-time work and multiple jobs as desirable. This is especially problematic because it reinforces the idea that females are primarily responsible for unpaid domestic work.The new labour laws are being marketed as ways to increase female participation in the labour force, and the Minister is in a hurry to relax night-time work restrictions. We know that it is not night-time work restrictions that keep females out of the labour force. It is in fact unpaid care work such as taking care of children, the elderly and the sick, that prevent a majority of females from accessing paid work. Females need extended maternity, and paternity leave, as well as employer and state-funded child care. If the drafters of this law actually allowed female unionists to take part in the decision making process, they would easily understand the actual needs of female workers.” 

More News..