Ninety years ago Governor Robert Chalmers
ordered the deportation of thirty CGR union activists from the
locomotive workshops in Colombo to Batticaloa, then a remote
town on the eastern coast. After the Riots of 1915 the pan ic-stricken
colonial government, which viewed with alarm the threat of an
island-wide railway strike, took the decision to put an end to
the Ceylon Workmen’s Provident Association (CPWA), the first
trade union among the railway workers.
H. L. Dowbiggin, the Inspector General of Police
who became very apprehensive said: "The talk of a railway strike
shows that the recent disturbances were not solely religious and
further shows that since the disturbances agitators have been
again conspiring to cause trouble. These agitators, it is clear,
should not be any longer at large." (Incidentally when an
announcement was made that Dowbiggin was leaving the island on
retirement he received a bizarre send-off when a protest meeting
was called by the LSSP in 1937 to condemn the IGP for the police
excesses during the 1915 Riots).
The locomotive superintendent was asked to name
the militant railway employees. His blacklist included skilled
workers, some of them earning the maximum salary for their
grades. They included overseers, fitters, boilermakers and
carpenters. Nine of these workers were committee members of the
union. Under a Martial Law order, between the 21st and 27th
June, the union activists were arrested and detained for
fourteen days at the jails at Welikada and in the premises of
the Old Royal College before being transported by steamer to the
Eastern Province port. 140 workers, described as "the most
disaffected men" were also dismissed from the railways.
The exiles had been marked men ever since they
led the first island-wide railway strike three years earlier, in
1912. The management maintained a close watch on the
The stoppage had disrupted the economic life of
the island for nine days. Three thousand workers from the
railway workshops walked out. Five hundred firemen and cleaners
of the railway also struck work in sympathy. The stoppage which
started at the Maradana workshops spread to the running sheds in
Colombo, Kandy and Nawalapitiya, paralysing the entire railway
Concerns over fines and deductions from wages of
the workshop workers had given rise to unrest but the immedicate
cause of the strike was that their petition on their grievances
over wages, overtime and holiday pay had been ignored by the
Over three decades the average wage for skilled
workers had declined. The daily-paid workers had a 5-day week
but were only paid for the days on which they worked. It was a
9-10 hour working day.
The struggle was marked by an impressive
solidarity from other sections of workers as well as from the
public. Workers in the government factory, harbour, municipality
and engineering firms made collections for the railway workers’
strike fund. The press for its part joined in - the Ceylon
Observer, the Morning Leader and the Independent
blamed the government officials for their tactlessness.
The ferment among the CGR workers led to the
formation of the railway union called the CWPA which had several
politicians, temperance and social service activists among its
office-bearers. Its president was Charles Batuwantudawe, a
lawyer. Such was the modest beginning of what was to be in time,
a militant powerhouse.
The nationalist leaders who were office-bearers
of the CWPA, C. Batuwantudawe, Arthur Dias and D. C. Senanayake
were jailed following the 1915 riots. The secretary of the union
E. R. Wijesooriya was exited to Trincomalee.
The colonial government settled the strike by
appointing a Railway Commission. But the commission’s report
proved to be a great disappointment to the railway workers.
Their key demands regarding wages, fines, promotions and
conditions of work were not granted. The commissioners
recommended overtime pay for Sunday work, accident relief, small
pensions for the more efficient workers, and better facilities
for meals and washing.
Ponnambalam Arunachalam, one of the
commissioners (later first president of the Ceylon National
Congress, and head of the Ceylon Workers’ Federation in 1920),
made dissenting observations.
The dissatisfaction among the railway workers
continued to grow and erupted in 1915 in an outbreak of rioting
in the locomotive workshops in Colombo.
Arunachalam later described the plight of the
deportees during their desperate six-month exile in Batticaloa.
"No’ provision was made for their subsistence or employment...
the men experienced very great hardships for want of work and
food. Their sufferings were aggravated by anxiety for their
wives and children who were far away and in a state of
destitution on the exhaustion of their little savings".
The nationalist leader pleaded that they be
given liberal compensation for wrongful arrest, exile without
trial, humiliating treatment as criminals and for loss of
employment. As a result of frequent petitioning by the Ceylon
Workers’ Federation and the Ceylon Labour Union led by the
pioneer labour leader A. E. Goonesinha, the bar on re-employment
of ten of the former exiles was lifted ten years later. The bar
on John Perera and George Silva who were later active in labour
agitation, was only lifted in 1927.
Marshall Wicremasinghe, the worker’s leader
during the 1912 strike and exiled in 1915, again came to the
fore when railway workers struck work in 1920. In the general
strike of 1923 - thirty years after the first printers strike -
the agitation began in the locomotive workshops, and the railway
workers were to play a significant role in the growing trade
union movement. As the labour historian Kumari Jayawardena would
later say in The Rise of the Labour Movement in Ceylon:
"It is important to note that the railway workers whose
actions had led to their dismissal, imprisonment and exile, and
blacklisting were the first workers’ leaders to emerge from the
working class itself."