The emergency regulations at work

Sri Lankan unions abruptly end two long-running strikes

Sri Lankan employers, with the assistance of the trade union leaderships, have already begun to use the government's extensive new emergency regulations to force an end to industrial disputes, victimise workers and impose a tougher work regime in the factories.

The Peoples Alliance (PA) government promulgated the emergency powers, including a complete ban on industrial action, protests and public meetings, on May 3 in the wake of a series of military defeats in the ongoing war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

As soon as the emergency regulations were announced, the unions shut down two long running disputes at the International Gift Design Plant (IGDP) and ISIN Lanka, situated near Colombo. Workers at both factories are members of the All Ceylon Mercantile and Industrial Workers Union (ACMIWU), affiliated to the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), a partner in the ruling coalition government.

Without consulting the striking workers, ACMIWU leader S. Siriwardana faxed messages to the factories informing management that the strikes had been called off. He then pushed through agreements with each management in which none of the workers' demands were met. In the case of IDGP, Siriwardana prevented the union branch representative from being present when the deal was signed.

At the ISIN Lanka factory, 800 workers had been on strike since March 17, demanding reinstatement of six workers sacked on the bogus charge of doing overtime without management permission. Other demands included higher bonuses, an increase in annual leave to 21 days and the replacement of the company's security guards who had been used during the strike to threaten and intimidate workers.

The company sacked 26 workers on trumped-up charges after they returned to work on May 14. Of these 14 were sacked on the grounds that they had not been at work at a particular time on March 16—at the time in question they had been engaged in discussions with the management. The other six were fired for having left the premises without permission. A further six workers were sacked for working overtime without management approval. Four casual workers were not permitted to return to work. According to workers at the plant, most of those sacked had been active in the strike.

The letter sent to workers made clear that management was relying directly on the government's new emergency powers. “As you are no doubt aware,” it stated, “the Company's operations at its factory fall within the purview of the Emergency (Miscellaneous Provisions and Powers) Regulations, No.1 of 2000 dated 3rd May 2000 and is under the said law an 'Essential Service.' The relevant provisions of this regulation have been and continue to be displayed at the Company's notice board for the benefit of the employees.

“By your aforesaid conduct/action you are not only liable for legal action but also under the above law deemed for all purposes to have forthwith terminated or vacated his (your) employment in addition to being guilty of an offence under the said regulation.” A copy of the letter signed by the factory's senior manager, Major S. M. Dunuvila, was sent to the Essential Services Commissioner Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, appointed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Management also instituted its own establishment code, comprising 11 regulations and 55 sub-regulations to discipline the workforce. The code bans the pasting of posters, the distribution of leaflets, the collection of funds and the holding of meetings without permission and sets out “serious” and “minor” punishments for any violations.

The company's security guards—army deserters bolstered by local thugs—with the backing of the police continue to terrorise workers. On May 15, the chief guard, Major Asanka Senadhipathy along with eight of his goons chased some of the sacked workers away from the factory. One sacked worker, P.D.S. Jayasinghe, was assaulted.

Most of the workers come from remote rural areas such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva in the North Central Province and Matara in the Southern Province. ISIN Lanka, a threadmaking factory, is a joint venture with Indonesian partners and received free trade zone financial and tax concessions.

Employees earn about 3,000 rupees ($US42) a month and live in nearby houses or in harsh conditions at the factory's boarding house. Conditions in the factory are poor. It is noisy and workers complain that the mixture of dust and cotton particles in the air makes them sick. They are not provided with face masks.

Workers are angry about being forced to return to work. One sacked worker said: “Workers are in a more difficult situation after the betrayal of the strike. The establishment code and the letter issued to sacked workers shows the [emergency] regulations announced by the government have strengthened the employers.”

A young worker commented: "This war is not necessary any more. They are going to attack workers [here] just like they rule in the war zone. The trade union is responsible for the severe regulations workers now face. [Union leader] Siriwardana did not come to meet us to explain the dangers we now face. He did not come to address the workers. We do not believe this union.”

Another worker explained that during the strike local people had donated food and accommodation. “What we did not receive was the support of the union leaders,” he said. “They accepted the repressive laws. What the [union] leaders echoed was the employer, the labour commissioner and the cabinet minister. Without informing us, Siriwardana agreed with the employers and the ministry to end the fight. Because of the dirty manner in which the strike was called off workers even suspect that the leaders were bribed by the employers.”

At IGDP, where 214 workers had been on strike since March, the stories were similar. The strikers had been demanding the reinstatement of four workers, sacked by management over a protest concerning the non-payment of salaries. When the strikers were forced back to work on May 9, the general manager Frank Amarasinghe barked at them: “As you have come back you should work like dogs.”

Just 24 hours after reporting back, management retrenched 57 workers, saying that the plant had to be restructured to make up for losses during the strike. Those who were retrenched had been the most active and militant during the strike. Inside the factory, the lunch hour has been reduced to half an hour, workers are prohibited from going outside for meals, and some have been transferred from their former sections. Police have visited workers to warn them not to assemble in groups of more than four.

Workers resigned en masse from the ACMIWU in protest over its betrayal of the strike and formed another union affiliated to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). But there was already unease about the JVP whose branch in another section of IDGP had not supported the striking workers. At a meeting of the newly formed branch, union leaders failed to say anything about the 57 retrenchments and told workers that they should not have gone on strike.

One worker said: “Union leader Siriwardana deliberately prevented the union branch leader from attending the labour department discussion on May 2, in order to betray us. Workers did not want to stop the strike. If the leadership did not betray us we would still be involved in the struggle. These [emergency] laws are to suppress the workers' struggles. The Labour Minister recently said that these laws would not be used against workers. But then why don't they remove these laws?”

Other workers had asked Siriwardana how a factory producing clay vessels could come under the Essential Services orders. “The factory is an essential service because it earns foreign exchange. Workers can't mount agitations in those factories,” he replied.

Pay at the IDGP factory is between 3,800 and 4,500 rupees ($US52-62) a month. Workers come to Colombo from rural areas, hoping to send money back to their families. But they are unable to cope with their own expenses and during the lengthy strike had no means of paying for accommodation.

As one female worker pointedly said about the union: “Citing the war to silence the masses—that is implementing the policy of the government and investors.”