Unions in govt.’s crosshairs
Friday 24th March, 2023
Hardly a day passes without a labour dispute reported from the state sector. There are signs of public opinion turning against the warring trade unions that resort to strikes at the drop of a hat. The government has sought to make the most of public ire to settle political scores with the trade unions that pose a threat to its interests.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken a swipe at the education sector trade unions that are perennially on the warpath. Speaking at a public event, on Wednesday, he warned that if trade unions continued to ‘hold students to ransom’, the government would be compelled to declare the education sector an essential service. This could be considered a veiled threat.
The most effective way of keeping trade unions with political agendas at bay is to redress workers’ genuine grievances expeditiously. Instead, governments drive them to swell the ranks of trade unions with links to ultra-radical political outfits. So, the blame for chaos in the public sector due to frequent labour disputes should be apportioned to governments.
Workers must fight for their rights. If they don’t, who else will? But they must not ignore their responsibilities. Most of all, they must not test people’s patience. Sri Lanka’s trade union movement has a proud history. Its achievements are many. But it has gone the same way as all other institutions, over the years, owing to politicisation. More often than not, trade unions tend to overstep the line at the behest of their political masters.
The bane of Sri Lanka’s labour movement is that it is dominated by trade unions affiliated to political parties, which use workers as a cat’s paw to advance their hidden agendas at the expense of the public. There are some trade unions that are independent of political parties but they are the exception that proves the rule. They, too, act in an irresponsible manner at times with no consideration towards the public.
Everybody flays politicians for dereliction of duty—and rightly so. But trade unions are no better. It is doubtful whether labour leaders ever make a serious attempt to persuade their members to work hard and help enhance national productivity. The phenomenal growth of shadow education, or private tuition, as it is popularly known, is an indictment of the state sector teachers. Parents have to spend huge amounts of money for their children’s supplementary education. There are many exemplary teachers who are like candles, which burn so that others can get light, but overall there is much to be desired from the public school system.
All political parties including the UNP led by President Wickremesinghe himself have politicised and polluted the trade union movement so much so that politicians steal the limelight on the International Workers’ Day, when workers shamelessly offer their services to political leaders as palanquin bearers, as it were. Politicians craftily use workers to compass their ends when they happen to be in the political wilderness but after winning elections and being ensconced in power, they suppress trade unions. This is the name of the game in Sri Lankan politics.
Trade unions in this country are apparently playing the role traditionally assigned to the political Opposition, which is too meek to take on the government the way it should. Why trade unions are in the government’s crosshairs is not difficult to understand. The ongoing battle between government leaders and irresponsible trade unionists is, in our book, a case of sinners casting stones at one another.
Best antidote to exploitation
Tuesday 6th June, 2023
Most people are labouring under the misconception that every prospect pleases in this country and only politicians are vile. Hence the unprecedented rise of anti-politics during the past several years and the demand that all 225 MPs go home. It is popularly thought that all we need to do is to cleanse politics, and, hey presto, the country will be a better place. The focus of last year’s Aragalaya, which sprang as a people’s response to unbearable economic hardships, corruption, etc., and was later hijacked by some ultra-radical elements with anarchical agendas to compass their sinister ends, was also on ridding the country of corrupt, failed politicians. The battle was lost and won; the popular uprising led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but the Rajapaksa family has retained its hold on power by other means. In a way, it has been a case of swings and roundabouts for the general public, who expected a ‘system change’. But the question is whether their lot would have improved significantly even if they had been able to see the back of every corrupt, failed politician. There are many others who are as selfish as politicians and exploiting the public ruthlessly.
The Sri Lankan rupee has thankfully rallied against the major foreign currencies, especially the US dollar, over the past several weeks, and import costs have dropped significantly. The prices of essential food items and fuel including cooking gas have decreased, but the benefits thereof have not been passed on to the public; bakers and eatery owners fleece consumers by keeping the prices of their products extremely high. Private bus operators have benefited tremendously from diesel price decreases, but refuse to bring down their fares. They trot out lame excuses. The same goes for the unscrupulous taxi operators, who have refused to reduce their fares despite decreases in petrol prices and an increase in the fuel quota. The less said about the private hospital Mafia, the better; they exploit the sick with impunity. It has been a double whammy for the public; the state-run hospitals are experiencing various shortages and cannot cope with the demand for free healthcare, and the private sector health institutions fleece them.
Everybody is preoccupied with economic and political reforms these days. The IMF has rammed a slew of economic reforms down Sri Lanka’s throat, and they include the restructuring of some key public sector institutions. One can only hope that this bitter medicine will prove efficacious, and there will not be any social upheavals, which usually result from the IMF bailout conditions. The government has doubled down on its efforts to raise tax revenue and curtail its expenditure. Besides, some law and political reforms are on the drawing board, and much is being talked about the need to usher in a new political culture and bring about a system change. But it is doubtful whether these economic, political and law reforms will yield the desired results unless they are coupled with a robust social reform movement, which alone will help engineer an attitudinal change in people, empower them, inculcate a work ethic, and mobilise them to fight for their rights and work towards common good.
Traders, private bus operators, eatery owners, and others are having a field day at the expense of the public because people are not organised. The most effective antidote to exploitative business practices is for the public to boycott products and services that are unreasonably priced and are of poor quality. In this day and age, the public can be mobilised via social media easily. This is a task for opinion leaders and the various civil society organisations, especially those who claim to be fighting for the rights of the hapless consumers.
A question of legitimacy
Monday 5th June, 2023
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking at the National Law Conference, in Nuwara Eliya, on Saturday, urged the political parties represented in Parliament to join forces and help rebuild the economy. One cannot but agree that all political parties are duty bound to sink their differences and unite, for the sake of the country, to put the economy back on an even keel, for all of them have contributed to the process of ruining it albeit to varying degrees. The President also said that political parties should do so instead of calling for elections. There’s the rub! Does this mean that elections will not be held until the economy is turned around? How long will the government take to accomplish that task? What guarantee is there that it will succeed in doing so? What if it fails to straighten up the economy in the foreseeable future? Will the country be without elections indefinitely in such an eventuality? Efforts to revive the economy, we believe, must not be at the expense of the people’s franchise.
President Wickremesinghe argued that none of the parties with parliamentary representation enjoyed the support of 50% of voters. Opinion may be divided on whether his claim holds true for all political parties; those who endorse or challenge this argument will do so without empirical evidence. The best way its validity can be tested is for the government to hold the much-delayed local council elections, which will not lead to a change of government but enable the people to exercise their franchise, express their will, and, more importantly, help defuse the build-up of anger in the polity.
The SLPP has lost popular support though it polled more than 50% of the total number of valid votes at the presidential election in 2019 and the parliamentary polls in 2020; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit and Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down as the Prime Minister due to public protests. They would not have done so if they had been confident that the people who had voted for them overwhelmingly were still with them. The UNP polled only about 2% of the votes countrywide at the 2020 general election and has only one MP. Thus, the SLPP-UNP administration lacks legitimacy to govern the country, and that is why an early general election has to be held so that the people can elect a new parliament; ideally, it ought to stop manipulating numbers in the current Parliament to retain its hold on power and seek a fresh mandate from the people by holding a snap general election, or at least face local government/Provincial Council elections without further delay.
Public resentment is palpable, and the government has become dependent on the police and the military for its survival, and keeps postponing elections. Political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery, will be at risk as long as the people remain resentful of a failed government, which clings on to power in spite of having bankrupted the country. What the current regime is doing is tantamount to a rapist retaining the custody of his victim! It is only natural that the people have lost faith in the government.
President Wickremesinghe also said at Saturday’s National Law Conference that the majority of people had lost faith in elections, and politics, and whether it was the parliament, the judiciary, the media, trade unions or professionals, the people lacked trust in the entire system. There is a general consensus on this assertion.
The abuse of the National List (NL) mechanism by political parties to bring in defeated candidates and persons of their choice as appointed MPs is one of the main causes of the erosion of public faith in elections. The NL is a constitutional wormhole, as it were, which has to be sealed. Thankfully, all is not lost if relatively high voter turnouts at elections are any indication. Anti-politics, which means people’s hostility towards established political systems, parties, institutions or practices, is manifestly on the rise, and this situation is attributable, among other things, to the presence of many undesirable persons among politicians and people’s representatives, rampant corruption, the abuse of power and public funds, and the prevailing culture of impunity.
Most of the factors that gave rise to last year’s socio-political upheavals are still there; they have the potential to trigger another popular uprising of tsunamic proportions. Hence the need for the government to mend its ways and tread cautiously without suppressing democracy and provoking the public.
The publication of Merril. J. Fernando’s autobiography last month is a useful peg to hang a discussion on the Ceylon tea industry – we advisedly call it Ceylon tea rather than Sri Lanka tea – as the former is the name by which this unique product is known globally. Merril Fernando, of course, needs no introduction. He is very well known in this country as the creator of the Dilmah brand he coined from the names of his two sons, Dilhan and Malik, which he took to the world outside making it the best known nationally owned tea brand in Sri Lanka. As we said in a review of the book last Sunday, MJF is not the country’s biggest tea exporter but his is the best known nationally-owned brand of Ceylon tea in the tea drinking world.
During the British colonial years and the early post-Independence period, tea was our major export and foreign exchange earner. But decades ago garments overtook tea and also, remittances from blue collar workers striking out overseas to support their families back home became a reckonable factor in the country’s foreign exchange budget. Net earnings from tea, obviously, was far higher than what garments, that had by far become the country’s largest manufacturing industry fairly quickly, brought in. That was because the imported input into tea was a fraction of what the clothing factories had to import to manufacture their product. This included not only fabrics but much more. The labour was the major value adding factor in the domestic garment industry.
The major imported input into the tea industry is fertilizer. Like garments, tea growing too is a labour intensive industry. Onetime Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel who presented 10 national budget for the J.R. Jayewardene regime from 1977 to 1988 once famously said that Sri Lanka’s economy sits on a tripod of women workers – those slaving on the tea fields, working in the garment factories and venturing out as domestic servants largely to the Middle East. Never were truer words spoken. The British brought in indentured Tamil labour from India to work on their tea estates under harsh conditions because the upcountry peasantry was reluctant for various reasons to work on the plantations. These were created at tremendous environmental cost on land sold for a pittance under the infamous Waste Lands Ordinance of 1840.
This stipulated that “all forest, waste, unoccupied or uncultivated land was to be presumed to be the property of the Crown until the contrary is proved.” This resulted in the denuding of the country’s mountain slopes clothed with montane rain forests providing the sponge-like catchments for the rivers flowing through the valleys. The price paid was irreparable ecological damage to first plant coffee and then tea. The upcountry peasantry lost their common grazing land and much more to this despoliation that brought fame and fortune to British plantation owning companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange. Ceylon tea soon earned the reputation of being the world’s best and Merril. J. Fernando in his memorable over six decade long journey through the industry retains at age 92 a passion for the product that was the foundation of his success.
Apart from very readable accounts of his upbringing and early years covered in the book, Fernando has dwelt on the exploitation of Ceylon tea by the British whose chief focus was the bottom line. He writes that during the period of his training as a tea-taster in the UK he was greatly distressed “by the ruthless exploitation of our tea industry and its workers that took place in London.” He had developed a great respect for the British as a result of his friendship with many Brits resident her e as well as his employers who controlled much of the tea export trade. But all that was shaken when he realized what was being done in London to Ceylon tea by the British who dominated the global tea trade in Mincing Lane, “the world’s undisputed tea center controlling and manipulating the distribution and marketing of tea from grower countries.” He says that resulted in producers, especially those in Ceylon, being held to ransom adding that we were then more vulnerable to market manipulation than any other grower as about 90% of national production was being exported, a large proportion going to the UK.
A major service rendered to Ceylon tea by Merril Fernando was his resistance to efforts to make Sri Lanka a so-called ‘tea hub’ by importing cheap teas and blending them with Ceylon tea. This would have been a profitable business but at the cost of both the unique character and reputation of Ceylon tea. In the middle seventies, as result of the JVPs 1971 adventure attributed by the then rulers to land hunger, the land reform laws compelled the sale 150,000 acres of British-owned sterling estates at a price of Rs. 1,125 an acre (pounds 42 and 50 pence). It was agreed that the compensation would be “prompt, effective (meaning may be remitted) and adequate.” Payment was concluded over four years. Rather than alleviate land hunger, the plantations were vested in two monolithic state corporation, the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation and the Janatha Estates Development Board.
Despite the presence of 23 Regional Plantation Companies managing state-owned plantations leased to them in 14 regions, 70% of Sri Lanka’s tea is produced by nearly half a million smallholders mostly in the low country. Today the industry is hard-pressed for labour with the tea workers lot way below minimum norms. But the industry remains a vital segment of the Sri Lankan economy.
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