Friday, November 06, 2009

After the peace comes the pay war

By Feizal Samath - As Sri Lanka prepares to endure disruption to such services as fuel, water and electricity over worker demands for a wage rise, President Mahinda Rajapaksa this week said salaries will go up from January, drawing accusations from some unions that the offer is merely a ruse to prevent the protest.

Unions representing two main political parties have publicly announced an indefinite “work-to-rule” campaign from next Wednesday to press demands for an interim wage rise of 5,000 rupees (US$43) per month. The annual per capital income is $1,972, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Under work-to-rule, employees refuse to do anything other than the absolute minimum prescribed in their contracts, which causes a severe slowdown in output but falls short of an all-out strike while also protecting them from legal retribution.

The campaign will hit essential services and is expected to be worse than a three-day work-to-rule by workers from the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation at the end of last month, which saw long queues of motorists outside empty petrol stations.

In a message intended to assuage angry trade unionists, President Rajapaksa told a convention of the ruling party-controlled Sri Lanka Independent Workers Union on Tuesday that he would be granting a salary increase to all public sector employees from January.

He urged workers “to have patience and bear with us until the end of the year”.

The protest over wage demands is the latest in a series of crises the president has been facing since government troops crushed Tamil rebels in May this year, ending a near 30-year revolt.

The international community has put pressure on the president to investigate alleged human rights violations during the conflict, international media organisations are pressing for a return to media freedom, while a top Sri Lankan general was prevented from returning to Sri Lanka on Wednesday from the US, where authorities were planning to question him over alleged war crimes. Only last-minute diplomatic efforts forestalled the questioning, and he arrived back in Sri Lanka yesterday.

Mr Rajapaksa is also grappling with a rejuvenated opposition, which on Tuesday launched a new 12-party alliance aimed at ousting the ruling party at the next poll.

Protests, particularly trade union action over the rising cost of living and demands for wage rises, were muted during the fighting, in large part because the unions were supportive of the war effort. But now that it is over, attention has returned to daily life and the high cost of living that many workers find difficult to sustain.

The opposition People’s Liberation Front, or JVP, on Wednesday rejected Mr Rajapaksa’s wage promise, saying the government does not have enough money for it.

“The Vote-on-Account [temporary budget] was presented on Tuesday but that has no reference whatsoever to a wage hike. If that is the case, where will the money come from?” said the JVP parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti. A cluster of JVP unions are leading the wage demands and work-to-rule protests.

The government presented a temporary budget to cover four months’ spending to April 2010, instead of the usual fiscal year budget, saying parliamentary elections are due before next April and a new government should present the budget.

The main opposition United National Party has accused the government of avoiding a normal budget because huge overspending has created havoc with budget deficit targets set with the International Monetary Fund.

Leslie Devendra, general secretary of the ruling party union, urged his colleagues in other unions to heed the president’s call for a suspension of next Wednesday’s protest. The president’s announcement “is a positive step and I hope other unions will stop the action”, he said in an interview. “The government is facing many issues at this juncture and we all need to be aware of [them].”

Palitha Athukorala, chief organiser of the main opposition UNP’s National Workers Union, said although the president promised to meet unions after the October protest to discuss their demands, he met only the ruling party union.

Mr Athukorala said the wage rise is one that the government gives the workers once in three years, the last being in 2006. “The latest one was due in April 2009 and then the petroleum minister promised an interim allowance of 5,000 rupees but that has not been granted,” he said, adding that the November 11 campaign could cripple services across the island.

Mr Rajapaksa, at Tuesday’s meeting, was quoted in the state-owned Daily News accusing unnamed “quarters” of bringing workers to the streets to “fulfil their political agendas rather than on a salary issue”.

The president, under pressure, is also due to announce the date for the next presidential poll, expected before next February, at the annual convention of his ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party on November 15.

On Tuesday, the Overseas Press Club of America, an independent organisation that has defended press freedom around the world for 70 years, urged Mr Rajapaksa to free the jailed Sri Lankan journalist JS Tissainayagam and to act to protect and defend independent media in Sri Lanka.

In a letter, the organisation said press freedom has been stifled in Sri Lanka with journalists being attacked, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and assassinated. Tissainayagam, a Tamil editor and columnist, was in August 2009 sentenced to 20 years in prison for two articles which allegedly violated the country’s anti-terrorist laws.

© The National

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