Early each morning at the main bus stands of the Biyagama and Katunayake export processing zones near Colombo’s international airport, a few thousand men mill around. Their purpose is not travel but to meet the ‘brokers’ or representatives of recruitment agents, who hire on the spot based on ‘orders’ for workers received from factory human-resource managers. These temporary workers fill daily or seasonal labour shortages in the readymade garment and other export-oriented industries in Sri Lanka that employ over 350,000 workers inside and outside industrial zones and parks. There are 2.5 million workers – around 54 percent of the combined public and private sector workforce (excluding cultivators in the rural economy) – in precarious forms of employment, according to the official 2012 Labour Force Survey.
Meanwhile, on the eve of Sri Lanka’s presidential election in January 2015, the space opened by political competition for votes provided a rare opportunity for sections of the working class to highlight issues usually ignored by the government. Electricity, water board, and state bank employees staged walk-outs and picketed offices to demand that temporary workers in state institutions be made permanent, and that all future recruitments be made directly to the permanent cadre and not through private agencies. In late December 2014, the Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) head office was blockaded by temporary workers demanding secure employment on equal terms with those on permanent contracts. The agitation ended when the management obtained a court order to remove them.
While the ‘in-sourcing’ of workers hired from recruitment agencies is commonly associated with the unorganised private sector, this practice has spread to public sector and semi-state workplaces such as SLT. In addition to the insecurity of employment, despite continuous service extending over 10 to 15 years, temporary workers in the public sector are denied the holiday leave, pension and bonus entitlements of co-workers that are permanently employed. These workers are non-unionised, more likely to be in hazardous employment, and lack basic rights. Their salaries are paid to them by the recruitment agency that is their nominal employer, after deduction of the agency’s hefty commission. It is not uncommon for the name of the agency to be unknown to workers, who instead call the labour contractor by the eponymous ‘Manpower’. The identity of the employer is masked, deliberately causing confusion as to the point of accountability for workers’ rights and benefits.
Temporary workers are often treated as scabs by trade unions and permanent employees, and these divisions among workers have played into the hands of employers who exploit it to the hilt, as in the case of Sri Lanka Telecom. In this instance, two of the larger branch unions objected to absorption of temporary workers into the permanent cadre, and threatened industrial action of their own in the event of such action. Inexplicably, it was these unions and not management that claimed the increase in the number of permanent staff would be detrimental to the profitability of the company because of increasing salaries and benefits costs. The fact that corporate super-profits are made by extreme exploitation of temporary workers, who receive lower wages and no superannuation benefits, was ignored.
Meanwhile, the rate of increase of casual jobs in the private sector between 2006 and 2012 was four times that of permanent jobs. An estimated 92 percent of all temporary workers are in the private sector. This form of employment is not confined to small and medium sweatshops in the informal economy. It is widespread in telecommunications providers, hotels and industries too – including export-oriented factories in state-regulated industrial zones. While no hard information is available, one bank employees’ union leader estimates that up to a third of workers in some private banks and around one-fifth in state banks are hired without employment security.
Clearly, there is a concerted offensive by employers to further weaken the collective bargaining power of labour by expanding the number of temporary workers and creating conflict with permanent workers, whose conditions and security of employment are threatened by lower-paid and more vulnerable workers.
In stark contrast to its current disarray, Sri Lanka’s labour movement was once influential. One of Asia’s first trade unions was formed by printers in Colombo in 1893 in the teeth of opposition from the British colonial administration and European-owned business interests.
By the turn of the century, the urban working class included artisans; workers in cottage and service industries (rickshaw pullers, carters, tailors, laundrymen, barbers, bakers, butchers, shoemakers); domestic servants; workers on tramways and trains; clerical workers in the government and mercantile sectors (agency houses, banks, insurance companies); labourers and skilled workers in the export-import trade, in retail, and in light industry. However, the largest concentration of wage labourers was far away from the administrative and commercial capital, working on coffee and later tea, rubber and coconut plantations – whose produce was the mainstay of the export economy. There, the labour force of Tamil men, women and children of South Indian origin was differentiated by ethnic identity, language, recent immigration and geographical isolation from the largely Sinhala urban working class.
In the period from the extension of universal franchise in 1931 until the mid-1970s, workers and unions progressively secured recognition of their rights through enactment of national laws and ratification of conventions of the International Labour Organisation. Public sector workers – with the exception of the police, military, prison and judicial officers – achieved trade-union rights following an upsurge of labour unrest after the end of the Second World War. Between September 1945 and June 1947, there was a wave of strikes in Colombo ranging from banks to the tramways, harbour, motor trade, municipality, tea and rubber packing and government clerical service. These strikes brought together public and private sector workers and were under the leadership of left political parties in the colonial legislature that were agitating for ‘full independence’ from the United Kingdom.
While the strikes sometimes resulted in failure, the government was forced to incorporate public sector workers into the industrial relations system to moderate social conflict, and tackle the proliferation of spontaneous outbursts. State employees won the right to petition the Supreme Court if aggrieved on matters of appointment, transfer and dismissal. Labour legislation on holiday leave, on worker’s compensation, and on superannuation benefits were extended to the expanding state and public corporation labour force in the 1950s and 60s.
Wage Boards were established to negotiate and fix minimum wages in largely unorganised occupations. Private sector employers were compelled to recognise and bargain with trade unions. Non-judicial forums for conciliation and arbitration of labour disputes were established. Paid holiday leave, work breaks, and limits on working hours for shop and office workers were introduced. Women workers were guaranteed paid maternity leave and protection from arbitrary dismissal. Private sector workers became eligible for social security benefits on retirement. Employers in the private sector were not allowed to fire workers without prior permission of the Labour Commissioner, which entrenched job security.
Of course, these legal and policy gains were related to struggles, organising and political interventions by workers and unions, in those decades. From the 1920s, trade unions in Colombo confronted employers and police, demanding higher wages and better working conditions through protests and strikes. In a bipartite negotiation without state mediation, employers agreed to recognise trade unions – and therefore the right of workers to form and join a union – and the unions agreed not to strike in the first instance. This first collective agreement between a federation of workers’ organisations and the employers’ federation in 1929 was concluded even before the government had recognised trade unions as legal bodies.
On the tea and rubber plantations along the central massif, Tamil plantation workers had to fight their own struggles. Recruited in the famine-struck Tirunelveli, Madurai, Tanjore and Tiruchirapalli districts of the Madras Presidency in British India, they had been transported across the Palk Straits and overland from the coast to the highlands of Ceylon by labour contractors known as kanganies. Although they were not indentured – as others shipped to the Caribbean, Pacific and Africa were – the plantation workers in British Ceylon had to fight to win recognition as ‘free’ wage labourers. From the standpoint of the planters, for whose profits they toiled, the labourers were but semi-slaves.
Wildcat strikes, encirclement of management (gherao) and occupation of factory premises were the means by which unions were established and allowed to function on the plantations. Much later, it was only by squeezing production through protracted go-slows and work stoppages, rather than an act of parliament, that women workers gained equal pay to men in 1984.
Role of the left
The left political parties, principally the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP), began organising workers into party-affiliated unions in the decade leading up to independence in 1948. Outside of the plantations (where the Ceylon Workers Congress, an almost exclusively Tamil trade union and political party, soon ruled the roost), the leadership of large sections of the urban working class was in the hands of radicals espousing anti-colonial nationalism and social transformation.
As Marxist parties, for whom the proletariat is the prime agent of revolutionary change, it was crucial for the LSSP and CP to manifest an organic link with workers and their organisations and to demonstrate which among them had greater support in the working class. Ideological and electoral competition within the political left spilled over into workplaces, and rival unions were formed by the left parties. Among workers in a wide range of spheres – railways and buses; the Gas Company; the harbour; the Colombo municipal corporation; the textile and weaving mills; petroleum industry; and in government departments and state-owned business undertakings – the unions of the left staked their presence.
In a bid to exploit the national prominence of the best-known leaders of the left among the working class, and to tighten the bond between the party and the union, the parliamentary representatives of the LSSP and CP were nominally elected as union office bearers. This became a matter of prestige for the unions concerned, as well as for the largely upper-middle-class left politicians who were ‘outsiders’ to the working class. The largest non-party affiliated trade unions such as the Ceylon Mercantile Union, Ceylon Bank Employees’ Union and Ceylon Estate Staff Union, also came under the leadership of leftists either associated with or sympathetic to the left parties.
This is not to claim that the hundreds upon thousands of workers, once organised by left unions, necessarily shared all the political views of the parent party. Mostly, workers were drawn to unions associated with the left by the principled stance and personal integrity of the self-sacrificing militant leaders who organised workers, bargained with employers, and represented members in their disputes. However, when other unions associated with parties in government were established, many of these workers would desert the left. Pro-capitalist parties saw no contradiction in seeking to organise workers in the public, plantation and private sectors into affiliated trade unions.
Soon after the populist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came into government in 1956, it began establishing its own trade unions. In 1958, the conservative United National Party (UNP) followed suit. Both succeeded in controlling a large section of workers, particularly when in government. These mass organisations were also useful vote banks, and broadened popular appeal beyond the dominant social forces of which these parties are representative. As these political parties alternated in office, so too did the fortunes of their trade unions ebb and flow, as workers floated from one to the other to avoid political victimisation, to seek favours, or both. In the process, labour militancy was now being eclipsed by political accommodation. Multiple membership of unions was not unknown, contributing to the difficulty of accurate and credible data on registration of functioning organisations and numerical strength.
Workers and unions were prominent in the 1953 hartal, or general strike, organised by the left parties. The protest on 12 August against a steep increase in the price of rice, a staple food, spread far beyond urban organised labour. Railway lines and roads were blocked, telephone lines were cut, and street protests took place in urban centres, including physical confrontations with the police leading to several fatalities. The UNP government feared it would be removed from power, though that happened three years later in the general election. However, the Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was compelled to resign a few months later, and the Finance Minister J R Jayewardene lost his portfolio.
There was a ‘political’ strike against repressive public security legislation in 1959. While it was unsuccessful, the action signalled the advanced consciousness of workers and unions in taking up democratic-rights issues of broader public interest. Another landmark struggle took place in January 1962. When 17,000 port workers went on strike demanding a monthly wage, the government ordered the military to handle harbour operations which had been paralysed. In response, trade unions in other sectors and of divergent political persuasions showed their solidarity by calling a one-day general strike. Although the port workers campaign was soon called off following revelations of an abortive coup d’etat against the government of the day, its significance lies in the rare show of unity across the labour movement in defence of the right to strike.
In addition to trade unions exerting their influence over state labour policy through political parties represented in the legislature, some union leaders entered parliament themselves. Initially this happened through the LSSP and CP, and later in the SLFP and even the UNP. One veteran of the 1947 general strike who was sacked from his government job, T B Ilangaratne, was subsequently appointed as labour minister in the late 1950s. He was responsible for several progressive reforms including the establishment of Labour Tribunals and the creation of the Employees’ Provident Fund.
When, in 1963, the still massive trade unions of the left began coordinating themselves in the Joint Committee of Trade Union Organisations (JCTUO), the government moved swiftly. The SLFP-led government proposed a political alliance with two left parties, in a clear attempt to neutralise the threat of rising working-class militancy. By June 1964, the political representatives of left trade unions were in a short-lived coalition, with the same regime they had been opposing on the streets a few months before. The illusion of power trumped principle, and the committee’s 21 demands, along with working-class independence, were sacrificed.
As sociologist Newton Gunasinghe later summarised:
The period from 1956 to 1977 was a period of a remarkable expansion of the public sector in the economy. Along with this expansion, the urban working class employed in the state and semi-state enterprises also grew. Irrespective of this numerical growth, this period was also a period of decline in the political strength of the working class. Due to the dominance of coalition politics, the Left parties were compelled to underplay class struggle and emphasise national unity against imperialism.
Gunasinghe also draws attention to the corruptive role of the political system on new entrants to the urban working class, as well as their contradictory consciousness as they continued to maintain strong links with their villages of origin, including small landholdings:
In the post-1956 period, with the expansion of the public sector and with political patronage as the main means of gaining employment, small property owning strata from the rural areas were able to enter the urban working class, without losing their rural property. They were able to make use of cheap public transportation, thus resulting in a mass of small property owning rural dwellers daily commuting to the city of Colombo, thus fundamentally changing the social composition of the urban working class.
With the exception of rural workers in the plantation sector, in the decades between decolonisation and the global economic crisis of the early 1970s, the labour relations policy of the Sri Lankan state was broadly inclusive of unions and workers. This was shaped by the ideological current of those times, when there was greater regulation of transnational corporations – sometimes extending to expropriation of their assets and holdings – and encouragement of domestic manufacturing to substitute imports and for expansion of the home market. The period was also marked by nationalisation and state control of the commanding heights of the economy, and even passing interest in Yugoslavia’s experience of workers’ participation in the management of state enterprises.
How then to explain the unrelenting decline of the labour movement over the past 40 years? The reasons are multiple and combine both internal and external factors related to organised labour. The most dramatic development was the structural shift to an ‘open economy’ after 1977. In the general election of that year, the UNP (in alliance with the Ceylon Workers Congress) formed government. The left was wiped off the electoral map, while its erstwhile partner in government, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, was reduced to a rump in the new parliament.
The political defeat of the left – following the poor record of the United Front government between 1970 and 1977 – was compounded by the ease with which the ideas and language of the neoliberal right became common sense. Ideals of equality, fairness and redistributive justice that had once prevailed were going out of fashion. Sri Lanka became the first country in the Southasian region to reorient its economy away from regulation of the market to regulation by the market, following the prescriptions of right-leaning development economists and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The new government’s recipe for market liberalisation included: deregulation of the domestic economy, including expansion of the private sector into former state monopolies; liberalisation of controls on entry and exit of capital, including foreign direct investment; greater integration in the global economy through promotion of industrial exports, particularly in readymade garments that benefited from a quota system for Western markets; and privatisation of state-owned enterprises. These reforms were advocated as the answer to the crisis that shook the Sri Lankan economy in the 1970s. Growth rates were low, averaging three percent per year. The balance of payments deficit ballooned, as the revenues from commodity exports plunged and the import bill for energy and food skyrocketed. There were shortages of consumer goods and rationing and queues were commonplace. Disaffection among educated youth without secure white-collar employment had exploded into an insurrection led by the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP, People’s Liberation Front) in 1971.
Enamoured by the high-growth rates and rising levels of prosperity in East and Southeast Asia, there was much reference within the UNP cabinet to the ‘Singapore model’, where capitalist development is celebrated by a single-party state that monopolises political power and is intolerant of dissent. Emboldened in its sweeping victory and the disorientation of the opposition, the UNP introduced authoritarian political reforms that concentrated power in the office of an executive president, and further eroded the weak independence of the legislature and the judiciary. The government used state print, radio and television media to spread propaganda.
The consequence of this transformation in political economy was to unravel the post-colonial compact in labour relations in Sri Lanka. Organised labour now found itself largely excluded by the state and subordinated to the interests of capital. Aiming to diversify the economy from agricultural commodities to industrial goods, boost export earnings and to create job opportunities, the UNP government in 1978 established export processing zones, advertising women’s ‘nimble fingers’ in the labour process. These were the first demarcated sites in Southasia of production for export to the world market. Foreign and local investors were courted on the basis of tax holidays, import incentives and, crucially, ‘industrial harmony’ through restriction of labour rights, including an abortive attempt to exclude the application of core labour laws. While on paper all constitutional and statutory provisions continued to apply throughout the island, in practice, workers employed in the zones and factories licensed under the new investment regime were denied the right to form and join a trade union and to collective bargaining. There was no respect for their right to strike as factory management summoned the police to break up pickets and strikes.
A larger package of reforms to remove labour market ‘rigidities’ was mooted in the draft Employment Relations Bill of 1978. The government advocated lifting restrictions on the hiring and firing of workers by private employers, banning strikes in essential services, and introducing a 21-day cooling-off period between notice of strike and lawful industrial action. Additionally, solidarity strikes would be unlawful, workers in unlawful industrial action would be deemed as having ‘vacated post’, and employees’ councils would be introduced in public and private sector workplaces with similar functions to trade unions, including in collective bargaining.
Unsurprisingly, there was an outcry among trade unionists. The government was still new in office and wasn’t ready to confront organised labour. The bill was withdrawn. However, its provisions convey the attitude towards capital-labour relations of that regime, as well as its concern to institutionalise industrial peace through consent where possible, and force where necessary.
Underlying the legacy of the labour code, and the partial inclusion of the labour movement in the state through tripartite bodies such as the wage boards, and in parliament through political parties, was the mistaken belief that good laws are self-enforcing. Where that was not the case, unions believed that the labour department and other state authorities would take action on the side of workers. It was evident after 1977 that laws do not guarantee rights: state authorities did not protect the entitlements of workers where employers were opposed to these, particularly in the export processing zones, and legislators only evinced support for labour rights when in the opposition.
The backbone of the workers movement was broken through the mass sacking of 40,000 trade unionists in the July 1980 general strike. The most militant workers at branch union level had been removed from working-class activism. The trade unions lost dedicated leaders who had to take up self-employment of various forms as they had been blacklisted by employers. The combativeness of the working class was drained.
The joint protest of public and private sector workers took up a range of labour, economic and political demands, including wage increases, equal pay for equal work, and repeal of national security law. However, the more militant unions misread the UNP government’s climbdown on the 1978 Employment Relations Bill as a sign of weakness, when in fact it was a tactical manoeuvre; and they underestimated the distrust and sectarianism within organised labour which sowed disunity and enabled the government to defeat this challenge to its authority. Several important private sector unions, including Ceylon Mercantile Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU), opposed the strike, as did the two largest trade unions in the plantation sector (both of whom were linked to the government). The JVP also withheld its support. In some instances, there was a conflict of opinions between the parent and branch unions on the advisability of strike action in these circumstances.
State violence, emergency law, media censorship, and the ‘vacation of post’ order issued against all workers who participated in the struggle succeeded in crushing what threatened to become an anti-government movement. The regime feared that protest by this section of society could galvanise opposition from other sectors that were likewise affected by factors such as the astronomical increase in inflation, the devaluation of the rupee, making imported staple goods beyond the reach of many, and the cutbacks on subsidies and public expenditure in health, education and social welfare.
Almost 35 years after the defeat of the July 1980 strike, it is not a question of when but whether the trade union movement can now recover its previous social weight. Although the edifice of labour laws remained, their substantive content was gutted through extra-legal means of force and repression, including the use of violence by state and political goons against trade unionists to break up pickets, demonstrations and strikes, while the police looked away or joined in. Inevitably, the workers’ movement could not escape the general clampdown on democratic rights. Emergency rule was almost continuously in force from 1971, strangling freedoms of association, assembly and expression.
As Tamil armed militancy gained ground, the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) introduced arrest on the basis of mere suspicion and indefinite detention without trial. As leftwing trade unionists warned at the time, the PTA would not be confined to alleged threats to national security but invoked to repress workers’ struggles too. This was borne out in the government nurses’ strike in 1986, when the union leading that struggle was banned and its funds sequestered. Emergency laws and essential services orders were used to ban strikes. The dismantling of civil liberties was both cause and consequence of the outbreak of internal war after the horrific anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983. In an environment of armed conflict, terror attacks, and the whipping up of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism, unions found it difficult to mobilise workers on wage demands, let alone on a platform of opposition to the war and the national security ideology of the state.
It was already evident that class consciousness could co-exist alongside other kinds of consciousness too. There had been outbreaks of xenophobia in the Colombo working class in the 1930s, when economic crisis reduced opportunities for labouring and service-sector jobs, and trade union and political leaders whipped up the animosity of Sinhala workers against Malayali and Tamil immigrant workers from South India. When plantation workers of recent Indian origin were rendered stateless and without franchise by the UNP government soon after independence, it was not possible to galvanise the wider labour movement in solidarity, despite the vociferous objection of left parties on grounds of ethnic and class discrimination. This estrangement between urban and rural workers, which has not yet been overcome, is a tremendous weakness.
Organised labour had been comparatively weak in the northern Tamil-speaking region, aside from the public sector and in pockets of the formal private sector. Nevertheless, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which exerted its authority in those areas parallel to the Sri Lankan state, viewed the existence and functioning of independent collective organisations as a challenge to its control. So, for instance, the LTTE ‘banned’ Tamils from joining unions that had cross-membership with Sinhala workers, and repressed branch unions such as that of the CMU in the Paranthan Chemicals Company in the Northern Province.
Another blow to working-class organisation in the predominantly Sinhala south of the island was the insurrection led by the JVP between 1987 and 1989 and the counter-terror measures of the state which responded with extreme brutality. Widening disparities between rich and poor and the aspirations of jobless youth contributed to the insurrection, but the JVP took a racist turn in its bid for state power as it fed off opposition to power-sharing with the Tamil-speaking regions of the north and east during this period. As part of its campaign to destabilise the UNP government, the JVP began targeting political parties and social movement leaders for assassination. This policy of terror extended to left political parties that supported autonomy for Tamils, as well as left trade unionists who did the same.
Unions and workers were trapped between the terror of the JVP and that of the state, which responded in even more brutal fashion by abductions and mass killings of Sinhala youth and of social and political activists suspected of being anti-government or pro-JVP. In this climate of fear and repression, working-class organisations were almost deactivated. Trade unions were unable to adapt to the altered labour-relations environment forged by economic liberalisation. Their capacity to organise and mobilise their members was undermined further in the context of war, emergency rule and anti-state movements in the north and south of the island. Unions were absent from the new sectors of working-class growth in the export-oriented industries and the booming construction and services sector. Their leaderships were ageing and entirely male. The experience of defeat, crisis, and near-collapse of the traditional labour movement has therefore been the inheritance of the working class at the beginning of the 21st century.
The aggressive arrival of neoliberalism, accompanied by transformation in the organisation of production and work, has changed the landscape for labour politics. The majority of those of working age are in the rural sector, where 80 percent of the national population is involved. The rate of unemployment is also higher than in the urban sector reflecting the limited alternatives to traditional sources of employment, principally in agriculture. The relatively low official unemployment rate can be contested on the basis of its definition – anyone who worked at least one hour in the reference week was considered as employed – as it disguises gross levels of under-employment.
Women’s labour force participation has stagnated at around 35 percent in the population group of 15 years and over. This contradicts the expectation that high levels of female literacy, and the participation of women of all social classes in waged work from the 19th century onwards in Sri Lanka, would result in greater equality. One explanation is that gender and social norms have been slow to change in the absence of institutional and policy changes that free women’s time from the responsibility of housework, childcare, and care of elders imposed on them. Nevertheless, it should be uppermost in the minds of policymakers and the public alike that the three largest sources of foreign exchange – migrant remittances, export of tea, and readymade garment exports – derive overwhelmingly from women’s waged work. At the same time, women’s unwaged work in the care economy has sustained households in the rural, estate and urban sectors, particularly in the structural adjustment process and during economic crises.
How has the distribution of employment across sectors been affected by changes in the political economy? The manufacturing industry – including construction, mining and quarrying, and utilities – has almost doubled its share of economic output, to around 31 percent, in comparison to 1950. The weight of the agricultural sector has drastically reduced by two-thirds to under 11 percent, whereas it had been around 35 percent in 1950. In Sri Lanka as elsewhere, it is the services sector that has a dominant share of gross domestic product: 58 percent as of the end of 2013. As might be expected, there has been a commensurate shift in the share of employment away from agriculture. Currently under 30 percent of the labour force is in agriculture, compared to half that figure in 1950. However, there are still more people working in this sector than in the manufacturing industry. Seventy percent of unpaid family labour is in agriculture, and this is largely done by women.
The largest number of workers is in the services sector – trade, transport, financial services, health and education services, public administration and defence, etc. There has been a phenomenal increase in low-skilled and low-waged jobs such as cleaning and private security. This is also where trade unions are absent and workers are dispersed and without previous experience of organisation. Since economic liberalisation in the late 1970s, there has been large-scale temporary out-migration, especially to the West Asian countries of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan and Qatar. For much of this period, it was women who predominantly went abroad as domestic workers. An estimated 1.9 million Sri Lankans are transnational migrants, or around one in every five in the labour force. Migrant remittances in 2013 peaked at USD 6.4 billion, or 60 percent of the value of earnings from export of agricultural and industrial products that totalled USD 10.4 billion, underscoring its importance as a source of foreign exchange.
There has also been accelerated rural-to-urban migration, but again of a temporary nature. Hundreds of thousands of women have moved from rural to urban areas for industrial employment in the export processing zones, in factories outside of those zones, and in the services industry. Around 63 percent of the labour force in export industries are women, and this percentage rises to over 85 percent in the readymade-garment factories. These women workers are from farming households, with no experience of organising autonomously as there are no mass peasant organisations, even of political parties. Their objective in migrating for factory work is to earn an income and accumulate some savings. The intensity of the labour process – with its system of targets, strict supervision, restrictions on breaks – intersects with the harshness of their lives outside of the factory too. The workers live in cramped and unsanitary boarding rooms, experience exploitation by landlords and local businesses, face sexual harassment on their way to and from work, and are stigmatised by the host community.
Consequently, for most women, there is no aspiration to be employed in the export factories for much longer than the five years which qualify the worker for gratuity payment. During those years, workers seek only to retain their jobs and increase their earnings through overtime work to compensate for the low monthly wage. There is a high turnover of the workforce which also frustrates labour organising, as does the instability of the industry itself, where small factories pop up and disappear again frequently. Many dream of returning to their villages, building their own home and supporting themselves through self-employment of one kind or another. Some do realise these hopes. Others unable to do so try to break out of the poverty trap by migrating abroad, where their earnings are significantly higher and there is greater potential to save and remit money back to their households.
While trade union statistics should be treated with extreme caution, their scrutiny can still be illuminating of broader trends. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of registered trade unions actually increased from 1588 to 2058. Unfortunately, this by itself is not indicative of a revival of trade unionism. As only seven workers were required to register a trade union, there is a profusion of trade unions, especially in the public sector. Within a single government department, be it health or the railways or the port, there are dozens of unions for different skills, occupations and grades. The labour movement has failed to uproot parochial distinctions of status and craft, transcend fragmentation based on political party affiliation, fostering disunity and sectarianism. To add to this unfortunate situation, unions are also splintered on ethno-linguistic lines as Tamil speakers in the north and east formed their own associations of government school teachers and clerical employees, either in protest against the unwillingness of their former unions to take up discrimination against minorities, or in sympathy with the Tamil nationalist movement and its separatist ideology.
The statistics on industrial action are far more revealing of the torpor within the labour movement in recent years. In 2012, there were 34 strikes in the private sector involving a modest 9904 workers, with the loss of 35,817 ‘man-days’ in that year. This is far removed from earlier periods when hundreds of thousands of workers would regularly walk out during industrial actions. For example, between 1956 and 1964, an average of over 600,000 ‘man-days’ were lost to strike action each year.
As young wage labourers are drawn into new kinds of employment, where trade unions are absent, union density has declined dramatically. As membership levels fall, as an ageing leadership now in its 70s is not renewed, as women are almost entirely excluded from leadership positions – even in sectors that are largely composed of women workers such as education, health and export manufacturing – it is unsurprising that the labour movement is weaker today than at any point since the early 1940s.
In this dismal environment, there have nevertheless been some social and labour struggles after the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil conflict in 2009. The significance of these protests was far beyond their immediate demands and the numbers mobilised. Their outbreak and audacity were rare challenges to the authoritarianism of previous President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime and an inspiration to wider sections of the population.
Several important mobilisations have taken place, from university students against commodification of higher education and academics against degradation of the quality of public universities, to small-scale fishers opposing being driven out of their livelihood by the cost of fuel and the competition of mechanised trawlers and water-grabbing for tourist developments.
Among these was the 2011 protest against unfair provisions of a proposed private sector pension bill. The workers in the Katunayake and Biyagama Free Trade Zones, which are the oldest on the island, took the initiative to walk out of factories and gather on the streets in protest against the prohibitions on withdrawal of retirement benefits by workers with less than 10 years of employment. Tens of thousands of workers confronted the police who used water cannons, tear gas and batons to try and disperse the protestors. Then the police began live firing, which resulted in the death of 21-year-old Roshen Chanaka and serious gunshot or head injuries to around 200 others. The resulting shock and outrage forced the government to back down and withdraw the draft legislation.
In the January 2015 mini-budget speech of the new government, temporary employees with seven years of service in the Electricity and Water Boards as well as Sri Lanka Telecom have been promised permanency. While this is welcome, this regularisation of employment does not extend to the vast majority of workers who are in the private sector. Further, the seven-year wait is arbitrary and unjustified when existing labour law recognises that any worker who has completed 180 days of continuous service within a 12 month period as entitled to the same rights and protections as a worker on a permanent contract. Trade unionists also observe that action is slow to follow political rhetoric. National Savings Bank employees who were promised permanent contracts in the run-up to the election last December are still waiting for them.
Organised labour should follow the lead of enlightened union leaders who have been at the forefront of organising temporary workers and taking up their issues. These militant unionists have themselves been victimised by management, through punishment transfers and other forms of harassment, and need the solidarity of other trade unions. By turning outwards and reasserting class-struggle politics, the labour movement must reinvent itself and regain its lost agency.
~Balasingham Skanthakumar is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratisation in Sri Lanka. He authored a chapter titled “Workers Rights” in Sri Lanka: State of Human Rights 2008 (2009), and co-edited Pathways of the Left in Sri Lanka (2014).
~Note: The contribution of Suranjaya Amarasinghe, Anushaya Collure, Niyanthini Kadirgamar, Buddhima Padmasiri and Wijepala Weerakoon are acknowledged. In memoriam Bala Tampoe (1922-2014).
~This article was first published in March 2015.