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Spontaneous Mass Protest by workers has forced the regime to Withdraw Proposed pension plan legislation

7 June 2011,
By Dr.Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu
The tension and hiatus over the pension bill and the killing of the Free trade Zone worker Roshen Chanaka is subsiding following his burial on Saturday, the withdrawal of the pension bill and the promise by the regime to consult with stakeholder representatives before another version of it is mooted. That the particular scheme, now withdrawn, was badly conceived and blatantly unfair is beyond dispute. It seemed to be a scam at the expense of workers.

Whether it was conceived by the regime under IMF pressure, as some have alleged, or by the regime acting on its own to meet the requirements of the IMF, is not known. We should know.

This is the job of our legislators in parliament – they are elected by us to protect and advance our interests by checking and balancing executive power and action. Unfortunately, their record in this respect has not been satisfactory.

The pros and cons of a private sector pension plan and for an ageing workforce aside, questions of accountability arise with regard to two dimensions of this particular pension plan – its design and drafting and the violence it aroused.

Much has been made by the regime of the unprecedented nature of the IGP’s resignation as an example of accountability in government in recent times. Others have argued that the IGP was to retire anyway, and that he was sacrificed by the regime at little cost and much publicity, obscuring the real issue of accountability within the regime for the violence that was unleashed.

Yet others have agreed with the regime and applauded the apparent deftness of the president’s handling of the entire issue –withdrawal of the pension scheme, arrests of police officers, identifying the JVP as the source of the violence, financial compensation to Roshen Chanaka’s family, even the proposal, as reported, to send victims of the violence abroad for medical treatment which in one fell swoop indicted not only the police but the medical profession as well!

Who indeed is responsible for what happened? Who gave orders to carry live ammunition and to open fire? Did the unprecedented tearing down of the large cutout of the President Mahinda Rajapaksa have any bearing on the reaction of the police? Are these questions in the terms of reference of the most recent Tilekeratne commission and will this commission also end up in the same way as previous commissions?

Were the minister and the secretary involved in any of these decisions, given the political sensitivity of what was involved and given the tight control maintained over the defence establishment?

The last question may be seen as treading into taboo territory since it goes to the heart of the regime. It does nevertheless raise the question of responsibility and accountability in respect of matters of law and order involving the security and defence establishment and of the pros and cons of the chief executive holding the ministerial portfolios.

In this instance the chief executive holds the two ministerial portfolios directly involved – defence and finance. By all accounts the pension bill came out of the finance ministry – the labour ministry had to defend a piece of proposed legislation directly and sensitively related to their subject area without their participation in its design and drafting. How is legislation in this country prepared?

What role did the chief executive, in this capacity, and as minister play in the design and drafting of the proposed legislation? Did he approve of it? What role did he as chief executive and minister and his brother as secretary play in the actions of the police?

Like in the case of the joint communiqué with India for which the minister still continues to get flak and abuse even though he was accompanied by the ministry monitor and could not have signed the communiqué without the his boss’s approval, the chief executive appears to be favoured by a political immunity from criticism. This is underpinned, no doubt, by the constitutional immunity granted to the holder of that office and his personal popularity on account of defeating the LTTE. Good governance?

There are a host of other questions arising from media reports regarding the funeral arrangements and as to the material damage and financial loss to the companies in the zone and to the apparel industry. The German ambassador has voiced his concern about the impact of this on investments from his country in Sri Lanka. Do we need reminding that we lost GSP Plus on the question of human rights protection?

Media also reported that UPFA MP Duminda de Silva charged with the responsibility of monitoring the defence ministry was seen leading a gang of thugs armed with poles in the vicinity of a demonstration in Colombo, in sympathy with the workers! This ministerial monitor has yet to be called to book.

It is too early to definitively deem these events a watershed in the fortunes of the regime and chief executive. Spontaneous mass protest, not politically sponsored and engineered, has forced the regime to withdraw proposed legislation and to think again.

Perhaps this will be both a chastening as well as chastising experience for the regime. It is being tried and tested on other fronts as well on the question of violence and accountability and has miles to travel before it can realistically conclude that it is out of the woods.

How will it proceed? – more, smoke and mirrors, bread and circuses for the masses, offence as the best form of defence, or governance?



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