Workers called upon to meet challenges


The Ceylon Federation of Labour (CFL) has called upon the trade union movement to brace themesleves for meeting formidable challenges to the hard-won rights of workers in view of some controversial proposals in the Budget 2016.

The CFL has, in a statement signed by its Deputy General Secretary T. M. R. Rasseedin, says the maiden Budget of the Maithripala–Ranil government marks the high point in the functioning of the open economy ushered in 1977 and followed since by all successive governments in Sri Lanka. It is in keeping with the third generation of economic reforms announced by the Prime Minister on 5th November 2015 which envisaged the complete freeing of land, labour and capital of all remaining restriction and controls to entice investment both local and foreign, the CFL notes.

Excerpts of the CFL media statement:

Pressures of globalization and policy influences of international organizations promoting free trade in the world – the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank are very strong on the government as evident from the government’s taxation policy which has undergone transformation posing severe challenges to state revenue.

As a measure to mitigate any possible impact of the Budget on vulnerable sections of our society, the government has reduced the prices of a number of essential items of common use but the sustainability of such measures in a market economy is questionable.

The payment of Rs. 250,000 for 1980 July strikers is welcome but a monthly payment for life would have been preferable.

The economic need to develop the SME sector is supported but the use of EPF/ETF monies is imprudent. In any investment of workers’ money great care has to be exercised to ensure safety, yield and liquidity of the funds.

Our social security system is too fragmented. Apart from the EPF, ETF and Gratuity, we have approved provident funds managed by Banks, Private companies and institutions. In addition we have contributory pension schemes covering farmers, fishers and the self-employed. These have to be taken into consideration in formulating a national pension scheme for the population.

The extension of the existing fertilizer subsidy to the small scale paddy farmer is a welcome move but the envisaged cash grant of Rs. 25,000 a year to other farmers is bound to be viewed with disfavour as inflation and price increases are bound to affect the cash grant.

The introduction of a life insurance cover for fisherman is a long-felt-need but it should not be placed as an additional burden on the fishermen who have to contribute to a fishermen contributory pension scheme.

The Rs. 2,500 salary increase to private sector employees is being inordinately delayed due to employer resistance and the government’s incapacity to make the employers to fall in line with government’s will.

The Budget proposes to meet the unions’ demand for a national minimum living wage through the establishment of an "Employment Council to be managed by members of the civil society and chambers of commerce". It has to be stressed that a national minimum living wage must be a minimum material entitlement to a worker with no restrictions whatsoever to work/ category/ trade/ sector or industry and must be established as a fundamental right of all working people.

New recruits to the public service will be placed on a contributory pension scheme in keeping with the policy advice of international financial institutions to prune State sector recurrent expenditure.

Work-week limit to five days for private sector employees is a demand of employers as a measure of cost-cutting, reduced expenses to factory operations. To the employees five day work-week would mean more number of hours of work than legally permissable (exceeding eight hours a day) without compensation resulting in intensified exploitation of workers. Any change over to a 5-day week of work may be considered acceptable if it is undertaken as a result of an expressed and voluntary agreement between management and trade unions and or majority of workers with due compensation for additional hours of work.

The Minister of Finance is incorrect in his statement that currently employers are required to make contract employees permanent after six months and this serves as a disincentive for employment creation. There are various types of contract employment practices resorted to by employers all of which deprive employees of their rights, voice and (statutory) dues.

The Budget mentions that labour market need to be made vibrant through flexible employment practices and it is proposed to introduce less than 40 hours per week part-time culture. The "archaic labour laws" that are supposed to hinder job creation and increase female labour force participation have not been specified but the trade union movement is well aware of the long standing demands of the employers in this regard. The government is preparing itself to placate employers by affording them as much flexibility as possible and to stretch law and regulation in their favour. The trade union movement is called upon to prepare to meet the challenge posed to the hard-won rights of workers.

Whilst the working mass is being assailed in this manner the country’s door is being opened ajar for the penetration of private capital both local and foreign. They are being showered with all types of incentives to exploit the country, its resources and labour for profit and super gains. The government believes that the pursuit of such a policy would enable it to achieve its mid-term targets of

1. Generating one million job opportunities

2. Enhancing income levels

3. Development of rural economics

4. Widening land ownership

5. Creating a wide and strong middle class

and build "an economy friendly and beneficial to all" as the Prime Minister asserted in his 5thNovember address to Parliament.

In the SOCIO-cultural and political culture that has developed in our country over the years, the set targets seem to counter difficulties in its implementation. Time will tell.

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