Lankan trade unions have lost 60 per cent of their membership in a decade

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Trade unions in Sri Lanka have lost 60% of their members during the last decade as unions struggle to adapt to new realities brought about by labour law relaxation, Vidura Munasinghe, a labour rights researcher at the Law and Society Trust (LST) told The Island.

Munasinghe said that due to continuous policy deregulation by successive governments the informal sector of the government has expanded to around 65-67% of the total workforce and it would soon be increased to 90%.

"While the governments take steps to increase the number of workers who are not protected by our labour laws, trade unions are still not sure how to respond to this development. They are used to working with someone who works in a factory and to fight and negotiate with the factory owners."

During the eight years up to 2014, the union membership had dropped from 1.1 million to 345,000 and this had happened at a time when unionization had become more important than ever, Munasinghe said.

"One of the main reasons is that there is also pressure from worker families not to join unions. There have been many instances of unionists being persecuted, so parents tend to warn their children not to join unions. On the other hand all the ‘rights’ we enjoy at the work place have been won through centuries of struggle. But there is no guarantee that they will remain so without unions to protect them."

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