Democracy, labour rights and parliamentary elections

12 Jul 2015 - Commentary

A year ago, on July 4, the late Bala Tampoe led a walkout of the trade union leaders in the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC).

In a statement signed a month later by Tampoe and four other trade union leaders, they explained the reasons for their walkout to the Minister of Labour saying it was as a result of the failure to implement a series of agreements spanning many years.

First, was the failure to implement in law, the State guarantees given in the “National Workers’ Charter of Sri Lanka, for the protection of fundamental rights of workers in respect of freedom of association and the right to organise and bargain collectively.” Next, they listed three matters of importance to workers; “(i) to eliminate the employment of workers for regular work through labour contractors (‘manpower’ agencies), and to make their true employers, whose businesses they are actually employed, legally liable for their rights in employment;(ii) failure to publish in the Government gazette the unit value of the Cost of Living Index, and (iii) to amend the EPF Act and to rectify inadequacies in it, and to prohibit the speculative investment of the huge funds accumulated in the EPF in the share market as well as the settlement of the issue concerning non-payment of terminal benefits to certain state plantation workers and staff over a long period of time.”

Contrary to perceptions created by employers and pro-business think-tanks that labour has a free run, the reality facing organised labour is that even the agreements and guarantees provided by the State are not implemented. And if that were case under the authoritarian Rajapaksa regime, there has been no movement on any of these issues facing labour, close to six months after the democratic change of regime. Labour rights are often a critical barometer of the state of democracy in a country. For if organised labour cannot guarantee its own rights vis-à-vis the State, where do individual citizens stand? Indeed, historically organised labour was seen as a guardian of democracy, but now it is reduced to an entity where even ensuring its own rights and the agreements it has won are in jeopardy. In this context, the upcoming parliamentary elections and the related debates on economic policies must ask why successive Governments have failed to take up workers’ demands, and what this means for ensuring “good governance.”

Broken promises

In this article we analyse the larger political implications of the above demands by the union leaders involved in the walkout, and what this reveals about politicians and capitalists’ attitudes toward workers. Trade unionists have pointed out the need for Sri Lanka to create the proper legal framework that respects workers’ right to freedom of association. The International Labour Organisation Conventions 87 and 98 refer to Freedom of Association but both are narrowly interpreted in Sri Lanka. Formation of trade unions has been restricted to only those factories that demonstrate a minimum membership of 40 per cent of workers. Furthermore, workers point to continuing intimidation and loss of rights in the workplace. Thus workers should have the right to create trade unions to take up individual grievances, even in the absence of a collective bargaining arrangement with management. While the National Workers’ Charter first formulated this demand in 1994, successive governments have yet to implement it despite promising to do so.

In addition to the political setbacks for organised labour after the strike of July 1980 was crushed, production has also been reorganised.
Globally, companies are using subcontracting, outsourcing, and other “flexible forms of accumulation,” to use Marxist geographer David Harvey’s term, in order to circumvent labour standards, and to ensure a more pliant and docile workforce. In this regard, trade union demands to ensure permanent work is done by permanent workers are crucial. While pro-business establishment think-tanks and economists claim that Sri Lanka’s stringent labour laws have forced employers to turn to manpower agencies and other forms of disguised employment, this framing of the problem ignores the broader political economic context in which workers’ collective identity is being fragmented. For example, permanent workers may see manpower workers as a threat, rather than as allies in a broader front in the labour struggle.

It is clear that employers have the upper hand in this situation.

The State unfortunately has taken a hands-off approach at best, often colluding with capital on these issues, including guaranteeing workers’ basic incomes. While public sector workers’ salaries have been raised this year, next to nothing has been done for private sector workers.
Trade union demands to gazette the cost of living and use the updated value are crucial in this regard. Employers claim that wages must be linked to productivity, but as the ILO Asia-Pacific Labour Market Update February 2015 puts it, significant gains in productivity have yet to be distributed to workers in the region. Moreover, politicians promote ad hoc policies to address cost of living increases – including subsidies and lowering the prices of fuel and basic goods – while ignoring the fundamental need to raise wages. The State then has been complicit with employers in stalling implementation of the cost of living index, which puts further pressure on workers’ livelihoods.

Finally, trade union demands to put forth a committee that can oversee the management of EPF funds is a critical yet neglected component of fundamental labour issues, and one that speaks directly to popular anger with corruption scandals. Workers’ salaries are deducted as part of retirement fund contributions, yet they have no say over how these contributions are managed. This has created an environment for the abuse of power. While employers might complain about politicians wasting financial resources, creating consultative committees that include labour representatives can ensure proper oversight of public funds. Surprisingly, the NLAC unanimously agreed to this demand, yet the State has not pursued the amendment. As a result, politicians and bureaucrats may very well continue to manipulate these funds for their own private gain, keeping the system stacked against workers and ordinary citizens.

Labour and democracy

For their own private reasons and interests, politicians and capitalists have converged in undermining recent attempts to strengthen labour rights through existing ‘tripartite’ mechanisms, as revealed by the trade unionists walkout from the NLAC meeting last year. Furthermore, even the democratic change of regime in January 2015 has not led to any progress with this backlog of agreements on labour. While commentators have posed the current national challenge as pertaining to issues of “corruption” and halting attempts to implement “good governance” under the current regime, the situation facing labour reveals deeper and pervasive problems with the Sri Lankan State. Therefore, any attempts to resuscitate democracy with the upcoming parliamentary elections should consider the broader implications of the setbacks facing organised labour.

In recent months, a dangerous discourse is emerging, which is calling for a change of the labour regime towards “flexible” labour laws, regardless of which new government comes to power. This would amount to a concerted attack on organised labour and democracy, further weakening the remaining protections for workers and citizens, including future workers in the country. Contrary to employers’ arguments, trade unionists do in fact support labour reform; a kind, however, that expands protections for workers, based on collectively formulated documents such as the National Workers’ Charter. Political actors that can seriously advance these proposals, however, may take time to coalesce. In this context, the urgent need of the hour is for the voting public to become aware of the democratic possibilities inherent in organised labour, and the progressive power of alliances between organised workers and other marginalised sections of society. These alone can put pressure on the State to fulfil its long overdue social democratic promises to workers and, more broadly, to Sri Lanka’s citizens.

This piece was published in The Sunday Times on 12 Jul 2015