‘Workers spurned President’s offer to discuss PSP issue’
May 31, 2011,/By Shamindra Ferdinando
UPFA MP Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle says a section of unruly workers had caused Monday’s brawl at Sri Lanka’s largest Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in Katunayake and forced the government to shut down the facility on the following day. It could have been easily avoided had the workers acted responsibly, she emphasized, asserting the need on the part of the administration to carefully study the situation.
MP Fernandopulle, who had represented the government in crucial talks with the striking workers at the EPZ on Monday morning, shortly before clashes erupted, strongly defended the police action. The law enforcement officers, she said, had no option but to use force to suppress the disruptive gang, which at one time threatened to overwhelm them. She said that those involved in Monday’s chaos were employees of just a handful of factories at the forefront of recent troubles.
Responding to a query by The Island, yesterday, the SLFPer said that she along with Minister Sarath Kumara Gunaratne and Western Provincial Council Minister Nimal Lanza had met workers on Monday morning to reassure them that the government meant no harm. “In spite of their hostility, the delegation went in to EPZ without armed escorts. The police, too, were unarmed and didn’t interfere at all, though the strikers made repeated attempts to provoke officers and men deployed there,” she said.
The Gampaha District MP said that they met the workers on the instructions of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Asked whether the President had called those who represented the UPFA in the Gampaha district for a meeting to discuss the issue, she said: “On Saturday, we had an opportunity to meet both, management of factories and trade union representatives at the BOI Katunayake. Although Labour Minister Gamini Lokuge tried to explain how the proposed Private Sector Pension scheme could benefit them, they reiterated their opposition and went to the extent of causing disturbances. When President Rajapaksa visited Katunayake on Sunday for an official function, all of us told him of the growing opposition among a section of the workers. We also told him of a planned trade union action on the following day. He advised us to meet workers and explore ways and means of resolving the issue.”
As instructed by the President, the delegation told striking workers that the government wouldn’t force the PSP scheme on the garment sector. “We assured them, that the government would not accommodate them in the scheme against their wish,” Mrs. Fernandopulle said.
The workers told the delegation that they didn’t want the pension scheme, she said. “Once, they rejected the scheme, we left them promising to brief the President. As we left about 10.45 a.m. on Monday workers hooted at us and challenged the police. They targeted a senior police officer and several personnel and made an attempt to carry out an organized attack.”
According to her, there had been a group of about 15 youth in shorts, who moved in at an early stage during the confrontation between the workers and the police. The bottom line was that it was definitely not a spontaneous attack but a well calculated move on the part of the trouble makers to cause mayhem, she said.
Referring to an incident in Jaffna during the CFA, in which a crowd of civilians, instigated by the LTTE, had killed SSP Charles Wijewardene, Mrs. Fernadopulle alleged that some officers could have been killed if the police turned a blind eye to an obvious threat. She acknowledged that the police hadn’t been prepared to face such a large scale attack by workers in spite of last week confrontation with the same crowd at the 18th mile-post on the Colombo-Negombo road.
Mrs. Fernandopulle, who lost her husband, the then Chief Government Whip Jeyaraj, in an LTTE suicide attack alleged that disruptive elements remained very much active, though the LTTE no longer posed a threat.
The MP said that they had an opportunity to brief the President before the SLFP Central Committee Monday night decided to suspend the PSP scheme and initiate talks with political parties and trade unions to reach a consensus.
A senior executive of a leading garment manufacturing company told The Island that ongoing trade union action had caused heavy losses in production. According to him, factories remained affected since last week’s protest during which trouble makers had blocked the 18th mile post on the Colombo-Negombo road. The source said that only few factories had been involved in the protest campaign.