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Should industrial action by trade unions be banned for the next five years?

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by Sanjeewa Jayaweera

A few weeks back, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) United Trade Union Alliance announced they would resort to trade union action unless the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) agrees to suspend or abrogate the agreement to divest 40 per cent of shares of Yugadanavi Power Plant in Kerawalapitiya to New Fortress Energy (NFE) a US firm. They have now been joined by the Ceylon Electricity Board Engineers’ Union (CEBEU) who have stepped up its work-to-rule campaign, making six demands, including the cancellation of the deal with NFE and the continuation of the LNG tender process that had been progressing when this backdoor deal was struck.

Several other trade unions, including those from the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA), both critically necessary to the daily functioning of the country, have announced that they too would join in solidarity with the CEB unions.

Adding fuel to the fire, several constituent parties who are part of the government have announced that they too are opposed to selling the shares. One presumes that their opposition is more due to their socialist ideology. A prominent minister opposed to the sale of shares has slammed the Finance Minister for having included the cabinet paper under any other business and for not having circulated the same for study and comments at the cabinet meeting.

There is a lack of transparency regarding this transaction which no doubt contributes to the controversy. This, of course, is nothing new as successive governments are guilty of not placing sufficient information before the public and other stakeholders when it comes to important transactions or legislative enactments. It is a reflection of the sheer disregard and contempt for public opinion.

The Supreme Court will consider several Fundamental Rights (FR) petitions filed against the NFE deal on December 16.

In my opinion, the unions’ proposed industrial action is not the way to compel the GOSL to suspend the transaction as those who will suffer untold hardship from such will be the public. Many of us remember the sheer agony we went through for 72 hours in 1996.

In addition, the manufacturing sector serving the local and the export market will come to a standstill causing further financial losses in addition to those suffered due to the pandemic related lockdowns. The public and the commercial sector can ill afford to endure additional hardships.

Over several decades the unions attached to public utilities in our country have used their considerable power mainly through the threat of industrial action to prevent much-needed reforms. As a result, the CEB, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the National Water Supplies and Drainage Board (NWSDB) have operated at a considerable loss to the taxpayers. I hasten to say that the losses are primarily a result of ill-conceived policies by successive governments. No organization can be operated profitably if, at a minimum, the cost of providing the service is not passed on to the consumers.

I believe electricity and water tariffs have not been revised for nearly four years despite incurred losses. Currently, the world over, the sharp increase in oil prices are passed on to the consumers through higher pump prices. In Sri Lanka, despite a recent hike, we are not doing so in line with world prices.

It is no secret that reforms are needed at the CEB, CPC and NWB, and all other state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to improve supply, service levels and cost management efficiency, all of which will benefit the consumer. As a result, the governments of most developed and developing countries have since the mid-1980s divested the utility companies to the private sector, albeit with regulatory oversight. That model has proven to be a winner, with cash strapped governments relieved of supporting loss-making enterprises and the sale raising funds and the consumers benefiting from efficient service.

However, the trade unions in Sri Lanka have successfully thwarted such reforms or, should I say, thought of such reforms! Although, to be honest, the trade unions have not had to do too much as successive governments have lacked the political will and intelligence to go through such an exercise. From 2001 to 2003, under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe, a study was undertaken with World Bank funding to work towards some reforms at the CEB and CPC. However, the dismissal of the government of RW by CBK resulted in the study being abandoned. Since then, nothing has been done, a sure reflection of why our country is in its current predicament.

The trade unions have used the threat of industrial action to negotiate wages, perks and work norms that are not in the country’s interests and, importantly, the consumers who are also taxpayers. A significant portion of the public is not aware of the high remuneration and benefits that employees at these enterprises earn.

In Sri Lanka, unfortunately, any proposed divestiture of government-owned assets is politicized. The often-used slogan is “apey sampath wikunanawa”, which means selling the family silver. It is a slogan supported by whichever party is in opposition, the left-wing parties, trade unions, nationalistically minded intellectuals and the media. As a result, the commercial benefits and necessities are forgotten. The abrogation of the undertaken given to India and Japan to allow their nominated parties to invest in developing the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo port is a classic example of how “thuggery” won over commonsense.

One only needs to appreciate the significant improvement in service levels achieved at Sri Lanka Telecom due to the part divesture and management control given to a Japanese investor in the 1990’s. Had that change not been made, I shudder to think how the country would have coped up with the rapid advancement made in the fields of communication and information technology in the last quarter-century. Many of the mobile communication providers in our country are foreign investors. This should not be lost on those who oppose foreign investment on ideological grounds.

We must also not forget the significant service efficiency and improvement in the operational and financial performance of the national carrier under the management of Emirates. As I remember, the opposition at that time, the United National Party (UNP), said that they would abrogate the share sale and management agreement when they came to power. That did not happen because they were aware of the benefits of the transaction. Unfortunately, in our country, the main opposition party, whoever it might be, opposes everything the government proposes despite knowing well of the benefits. They mislead the public to cause controversy and score some cheap points, and much-needed initiatives to take the country forward are delayed and at times discarded. The ultimate loser is the public, misled due to lack of information, transparency, and constructive debate and a misguided notion that these are our sampath.

In my view, very few people in our country understand and appreciate how disruptive and damaging the actions of trade unions in the public utilities, the GMOA and Teachers and Principals have on the nation viz a viz the public. Furthermore, the people are unaware that nearly all industrial action resorted to by these particular trade unions are motivated solely to maintain their high salaries (teachers and principals excluded), perks and insanely bloated numbers resulting in large scale inefficiency.

Unfortunately, successive governments are responsible for this state of affairs as they have repeatedly used state enterprises to give non-existent jobs to the “boys.” Instead of developing the economy with sound policies, they had taken the easy route by creating jobs when none existed. The SLPA employs nearly 10,000 staff to operate one terminal at the Colombo port. The other two terminals operated by private companies handling almost 70 per cent of volume manage their operations with a staff of less than 2,000. Incidentally, the former Chairman of the SLPA, a retired Army General, said that in his view, the maximum needed was around 3,000. The fact that the 7,000 employed in excess earn high salaries and perks at the cost of the taxpayers of this country is lost on the public.

The deplorable trade union action resorted to by the teachers and principals over several months impacting our children went on as long as it did due to the government’s failure to deal with it decisively. The GOSL continued to pay the striking teachers and principals their salaries despite not reporting to work. It is a fact that remuneration is a right when a service is provided. Therefore, it was necessary, or should I say mandatory, that GOSL should not have paid those not reporting to work their salaries.

Had the GOSL so acted, the strike would have been called off no sooner it started. I need to emphasize that I believe that our teachers are not paid adequately. It is agreed that successive governments have not invested sufficiently in education. The net result is that our educational system is in shambles. However, resorting to industrial action penalizing students during a pandemic and an economic meltdown is unacceptable. To make matters worse, they disregarded covid restrictions that the rest of us adhered to. I am not sure what sort of example they set the students who invariably look up to teachers for guidance.

In the private sector, dealing with unreasonable trade union demands more often results in wasted valuable management time and energy. Many initiatives needed to improve efficiency, productivity and cost management are either not implemented or delayed due to the intransigence of the trade unions. In most instances, the rank and file of union membership are amenable. However, those who hold positions in the union hierarchy at the National and Branch level pursue policies that are part of their own personal agenda and not necessarily their memberships’. There are many instances that I can share with the readers based on my 25 years in the private sector. Due to space constraints, I shall restrict it to just one.

In 2016 there was a sudden increase in demand for the products that the company I was working for was manufacturing. But, unfortunately, the manufacturing capacity was insufficient, and it was going to take the company over 12 months to order machinery from overseas and install additional capacity. So the senior management team of which I was part approached the trade union and requested that the practice of shutting down the production line for lunch be changed. Our request was for the workers to go for lunch in batches so that the production line could continue to operate, and the 40 minutes lost when shutting down the plant and restarting after lunch could be saved and utilized for much-needed production.

I was bewildered by the reply we got “For so many years we have enjoyed our lunch looking at the face (seated opposite) of my friend, and now you are asking us to agree to have lunch looking at the face of a person who may not be my friend? How can we enjoy our lunch?” I was livid by the response. The Managing Director pacified me a bit saying, ” Sanjeewa, you are lucky. They used to stand on the table of the Finance Director (my predecessor) previously when they were unhappy!”

Given the precipitous state of our economy, the GOSL and the private sector would need to make difficult and unpopular decisions in the future if some meaningful solutions are to be rolled out towards some recovery. In that context, I believe that the country will be well served if industrial action, particularly in those classified as “essential services”, is banned for the next five years. I am aware that some might not favour such a proposal saying that it will infringe on personal freedom. However, as a person who experienced and had to deal with stubbornness and lack of common sense from trade unions when trying to find solutions to commercial problems, I believe there is no alternative unless we collectively wish Sri Lanka to sink into extreme poverty.



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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