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FeaturesNewsPolice charge 18,000 workers, Catholics condemn the crackdown

Police charge 18,000 workers, Catholics condemn the crackdown


by Melani Manel Perera
Clashes occurred on Monday when workers were protesting against a draft law that would not guarantee a lifetime retirement pension. Three people are said to have died in the incident.Police used tear gas and prevented wounded from being evacuated to hospitals.

Catholic priests and human rights activists have firmly slammed the brutal police crackdown on thousands of Free Trade Zone workers who staged a protest yesterday in Katunayake. Protesters are against a proposed Private Sector Pension bill, which they deem deeply flawed because it does not guarantee workers a lifetime pension.

“Independent protest is a right of every free citizen,” said Fr Reid Shelton Fernando, a Catholic priest. “What has happened shows that, in this country, people cannot exercise one of their fundamental rights.”

According to some witnesses, police stormed a number of factories looking for demonstrators. They also blocked the main entry point to the zone in order to stop people from leaving. After a few hours, workers were able to force the blockade, allowing some 18,000 people to pour into the streets where they clashed with police. Witnesses said police also tried to prevent the wounded from being taken to hospitals.

Fr Sarath Iddamalgod, a Catholic priest, was in a local temple with six Buddhist monks when the mayhem broke out. “We saw the police launch tear gas to stop the demonstrators.”

“The government is trying to crush peaceful protests,” Laxman Rosa, a Christian political activist, said. “This is a total violation of human rights, the right of freedom of expression and the right to defend workers’ rights.”

Unofficial sources have also reported three deaths. Freddy Gamage, who writes for the Meepura newspaper, said that 216 wounded people are in the Negombo hospital. One of them has a gunshot wound to the leg and is in the intensive care unit.

The proposed Private Sector Pension Bill law would set up three pension funds to provide workers with retirement benefits but only as long as the pension fund does not run out of money. In practice, this means workers will contribute a fixed percentage of their salary to fund their pension plan and will be entitled to benefits upon retirement. However, should the plan run out of money, they would receive nothing.

Earlier Report on the Proposed Pension Plan:
Pension guaranteed “until funds run out”
by Melani Manel Perera

The government of Sri Lanka is about to approve a new draft law on pensions, allocating the contributory pension fund into three separate deposits and guaranteeing a worker’s pension “as long as funds last.” In reality, for 10 years, every employee will deposit a fixed percentage of their wages to a membership fund, which will form their pension , but once the money “set aside” finishes the person is no longer entitled to any pension. Trade unions and Caritas Sri Lanka-Sedec criticize the draft and fear that the government only aims to “steal money from the people. ” Colombo defends the changes, calling them “required” to ensure the welfare of the people who reach retirement age. ” If approved, the new pension scheme will be in force as early as this month.

The bill provides for three new funds: one for employees, one for migrant workers and one for the self-employed. The employee will contribute 2% of their gross monthly salary for a minimum period of 10 years, in order to have access to a pension at the age of 60. Every worker must pay a minimum amount of 12 thousand rupees [about 77 euro] per year. Contributions may be made in one or more instalments, within their 55th birthday. At that point, the benefit will be available when they reach 65.

However Prathiba Mahanamahewa, doctor and lawyer, calls the bill “unfair and misleading.” According to the plan, once the 10 years are over the employee is eligible to become a member of the fund to which he belongs. The contributions and interest thereon accrued during the 10 years, make up the individual account for each person. “But once they retire, and the money spent from the individual account is finished – says the doctor – the person ceases to be a member of the fund, in short, they are no longer entitled to a pension. This is unacceptable, because everyone should be able to enjoy life after their retirement. ” Mahanamahewa attended the meeting organized by Caritas Sri Lanka-Sedek, last May 13.

And the pension scheme changes do not end there. Under the new draft, if the worker dies, his wife and children are entitled to only 60% of the pension accumulated. The remaining 40% falls into state coffers. Much the same in case of interruption of employment for health reasons such as “permanent” disability with medical certificate, the employee can use only 60% of the pension accumulated.

When questioned on this issue, Fr. Reid Shelton Fernando said: “Civil society and the clergy should monitor the implementation of this law. The Board of Directors must be transparent and accountable, and act taking into account the fears of workers and their families.”

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