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Friday, February 23, 2024

Massive tax protests in Colombo; Unions threaten further protest actions against tax revision

Warning of a series of actions against the newly introduced tax revisions, thousands of public servants representing several trade unions (TU) of many sectors, including petroleum, ports, water supply, electricity, health and education held a massive demonstration jointly in Colombo yesterday (8), while separate trade union actions, including strikes, were also launched urging the Government to revoke the tax revisions in question.
Several categories of public servants, including the employees of institutions such as the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), doctors, engineers, and university teachers had gathered in front of the Colombo Fort Railway Station last afternoon. They were carrying placards and chanting slogans in protest of the tax revisions introduced by the Government led by President and Minister of Finance, Economic Stabilisation, and National Policies Ranil Wickremesinghe. A large number of police officers had been deployed to the area, and several senior police officers were seen obstructing protestors, stating that protests aren’t permitted to block main roads, thereby causing inconveniences to the general public.
However, the protest continued amidst obstructions by the Police, and protestors resorted to booing at the police officers. After some time, a police officer, using a loudspeaker, announced that the protestors had violated the relevant provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code by engaging in the protest that was blocking the main road. The Police announced that the protestors should not impede vehicular movement and the public using the main road and that if the protestors fail to do so, the Police will act to disperse the protestors according to the relevant sections of the said code. By this time, a water cannon truck had also been deployed to the site.
Meanwhile, a group of senior police officers were seen attempting to hand over some paper to trade union leaders who led the protests, but the latter group did not accept it. Then, a police officer was seen making a phone call to someone saying: “Sir, they are completely blocking the road and also refusing to accept the court order”. After a while, a large number of Police Riot Unit officers and Army personnel were seen arriving at the location.
Speaking to the media during the protest, trade union leaders said that yesterday’s protest was the first in a series of actions which will be taken against the tax revisions introduced by the Wickremesinghe-led Government. Claiming that they have been attempting to solve the issue through negotiations over the past few months, they said that the Government had not responded to any of their demands in a positive manner. Instead of solving the issues faced by the people in the prevailing crisis situation, they claimed that the imposition of new tax policies is making them even more helpless.
“Today, we took to the streets to force Wickremesinghe and his Government to revoke these unfair tax revisions. This is only the beginning, and there will be more actions in the coming days. Today, trade unions representing the most important sectors of the country have come together to achieve a common purpose. Therefore, regardless of the tactics the Government will use, we will not stop this struggle until our demands are met,” noted one trade union representative.
 The United Trade Union Alliance requested the Government to repeal the unfair and unjust tax policies soon while threatening that severe trade union action will be taken otherwise after the conclusion of the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level Examination. Addressing the media yesterday, CEB United Trade Union Alliance Convenor Ranjan Jayalal, while emphasising that they are protesting on the roads on sick leave, in order to prevent any power interruptions during this period, stated: “Today, almost all the employees of the CEB are coming to Colombo after reporting sick. We have a major problem before us. The Government that put the country in this state has decided to impose severe taxes on the salaries of all labourers, professionals, and workers. Today, we have gathered to urge the Government to withdraw the very unfair tax policies unconditionally, and if not, we’ll make the Government kneel before our demands to repeal this Act. We would like to inform the Government to withdraw this while they still have our respect,” claimed Jayalal.
Highlighting the severe cuts involved with allowances, he stated that CEB employees who are on duty 24 hours should not be undergoing this and that they have reached the maximum tolerance in this regard. “The breakdown teams are still at work and on duty, but if any power cut materialises, that would be the Government tactically taking advantage of the situation to discredit the CEB,” he said.
“If nothing promising happens as a result of the trade union action today, we will take serious trade union action to make the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa (a reference to former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and incumbent Government Parliamentarian Mahinda Rajapaksa) Government kneel before our demands after the exam concludes on 17 February. These tax impositions cannot go on any further. The workers in the country are left with nothing to do other than pay bills and fines to this Government,” Jayalal added.
Moreover, CEB Engineers’ Union President Nihal Weeraratne emphasised that all the workers of the CEB badly need the allowances previously provided to them in order to make ends meet in this economy. “The employees of the CEB worked tirelessly for the past two years for the sake of their consumers, but these leaders were not empathetic towards us and are cancelling all our allowances on top of these arbitrary tax policies. This is not only applicable to us but to the whole working force in this country. When the people are suffering due to unprecedented inflationary rates, the authorities have introduced these new tax policies, but we are not ready to accept this after working like slaves,” he said.
The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) too orchestrated a token strike yesterday, and addressing the media beforehand, GMOA Secretary Dr. Haritha Aluthge also noted the common plea of all trade unions to retract the newly imposed tax policies which have led to a brain drain in the country with professionals leaving the country.
“Furthermore, the Government has shown no intent to change the severe tax policies that have led to most professionals leaving the country. People are suffering with numerous economic difficulties, and therefore, we would have to take more severe action for our wellbeing and survival,” said Aluthge. He noted how the Government is not ready to dictate things in a more reasonable manner just yet and that therefore, the GMOA along with the other unions stand ready to take an even more severe stance to ensure they realise the impacts of the working class of this society, whom, he claimed, they have no regard for.
In addition to the protest which was held in Colombo Fort, employees of many government and semi-government institutions had organised protests in other parts of the country against the proposed tax revisions. Due to one such protest held in front of the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) yesterday, the Police had taken steps to close Lotus Road in Colombo Fort. One lane of the Olcott Mawatha in Colombo Fort had also been closed due to the protest.
Trade unions, including the GMOA, the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations, and the Ceylon Bank Employees’ Union had also launched token strike actions in support of the protest yesterday
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