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Monday, June 17, 2024

Sri Lanka: Labour reforms threaten to worsen the situation of the working classes -Joint Statement by 106 Academics

Image: Leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin at a protest.

Sri Lanka is in the middle of a dire economic crisis. We are witness to the new depths of misery that the people have been plunged into. Working people are the hardest hit, who have had to grapple with precarious wages, job insecurity and the devastation of an economic depression.

The message is loud and clear, when labour Minister prefaces his presentation with, “We still have archaic labour laws, a labour law which turns away investors.”

Despite this perilous situation, the government is proposing labour reforms that threaten to render the situation of the working classes even more precarious. In his Budget 2023 speech in November 2022, the President called for reforms “for an export-oriented economy”. Soon thereafter, Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment Shan Yahampath elaborated on the impending proposals, pointing to the introduction of “a unified labour code which will seek to move away from the current employee-friendly labour law system to a system that strikes a balance between the rights of the employee and the employer.”

Labour Minister stressed the importance of casual labour and the need to turn much of formal labour into casual labour.

At the May Day rally of the UNP, Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment Manusha Nanayakkara presented a 11-point reform agenda, outlining the principles of the reforms, which proposes to tilt the balance of power further in favour of employers. Nanayakkara’s proposals, the most elaborate so far, is at best sketchy, and at worst is a calculated move to weaken the collective strength of the working population in the formal sector. The message is loud and clear, when Mr. Nanayakkara prefaces his presentation with, “We still have archaic labour laws, a labour law which turns away investors.”

On June 14th, at a consultative meeting, Mr. Nanayakkara, reiterated the need for reforms, necessary, in his view, in some 20-odd areas of existing labour-law. While saying that reforms are needed in the plantation sector and in the provisions of EPF and ETF, he stresses the importance of casual labour and the need to turn much of formal labour into casual labour.

Herein lie the dangers of the current reforms.

The proposals are in part framed in the language of social protection, advancing the rights of the worker in the informal sector. Protection from violence in the workplace for women and incorporating people with disabilities in the labour force mean little when the overall climate is steeped in job insecurity and economic precarity. Further, the mantra of increasing women’s participation in the labour force is designed to be extractive of the labour of women in the face of diminishing worker-protection.

Weakening the contractual bonds between worker and management leads to casualisation, greater job insecurity and greater exploitation of the worker. Laws surrounding hiring and termination need to be clear and protect the worker from precarity.

Sri Lanka’s labour laws, though nothing to marvel at, have historically afforded the worker some protection from the blatant disregard of their rights. Yet, through fragmentation of the labour force, outsourcing and casualizing of formal contractual labour, and other disempowering measures, industrial management has been able to get around these laws.

The bulk of our work force in the formal sector is composed of women. Vulnerable at the best of times to the vicissitudes of management practices, they had been one of the first casualties of economic crises. During the COVID pandemic we saw how vulnerable our workers were to shifting trends of the economy, locally and internationally. Labour laws were flouted; workers were both left stranded and deemed outcast. At the same time, they were compelled through coercive consent, to work under trying conditions. This scenario will be formalized through the proposed reforms. The threat is imminent.

Weakening the contractual bonds between worker and management leads to casualisation, greater job insecurity and greater exploitation of the worker. Laws surrounding hiring and termination need to be clear and protect the worker from precarity. At the moment, we have termination laws that do protect the worker. Relaxing them would pose a dire threat to the worker’s well-being.

There is also talk of flexible working hours. This is most detrimental to the worker, who under pressure, will be trapped in a complex cycle of coercive and extractive labour within the casualization of their work; there will be little protection from working hours. Legal provisions for sick leave, maternity leave and stipulated periods of rest and leisure that the worker is entitled to will be eroded into. We know that while more than 10 days’ night work for women is not allowed at garment factories, in practice women are engaged in long hours of night work, with few safety measures in place.

The proposed reforms are designed to formalize the progressive weakening of labour laws and further disempower the worker through taking away whatever protection that is in place now. It is telling that when a meeting of the National Labour Advisory Council, which is composed of representatives of the state, the employers and trade union representatives of the workers, was called last month, four unions representing workers in the private sector and not affiliated to any political parties were left out of the composition. This is a clear indication of how the government is setting the stage for weakening the representative bodies of the workers, and thereby render them totally powerless, when reforms are initiated.

Malaiyaha worker

The economy of the plantations is on the cusp of change and the Malaiyaha worker is staring into a future of fragmentation of community, job insecurity, and lack of land. They have been long fighting for a living wage, and basic citizenship, namely, decent living conditions, safety at work, the right to land, decent housing and accessible schooling. Nanayakkaras 11-point proposals say that the government proposes to create “a plantation worker fit for the modern world of work,” ignoring the current state of gross injustice meted out to the worker in the plantation sector.

The economy is in a state of continued collapse, because of austerity, lack of job creation policies, and inadequate social protection and relief to the working people. In the end, we will be left with an irrevocable undermining of the worker’s Rights.

By undermining labour-laws the government hopes to attract investment and boost the economy. It is a road show put on for the sake of potential investors. But the regime is sadly out of touch with economic realities. There is a global economic recession. Our economy shrunk by 12.4% and by 11.5%, in the last quarter of 2022 and first quarter of 2023 respectively. As they stand, labour laws are not the cause of the economic crisis, and reforming them is not the solution. Rather, the economy is in a state of continued collapse, because of austerity, lack of job creation policies, and inadequate social protection and relief to the working people. In the end, we will be left with an irrevocable undermining of the worker’s Rights.

As academics, we are obliged to adopt an informed position on something as fundamental as labour relations. It affects us all. An informed, worker-oriented and people-oriented labour policy, a policy that provides security to all, and a policy that ensures stability and democratic practice in production and in the workplace is the need of the hour. Else, we would be looking to a future of suffering and instability. The already authoritarian government can only become more authoritarian in the face of imminent social unrest. We must join the forces of democracy to build a better future for all.

SIGNED BY

  1. M. Navaratna Bandara, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya
  2. Ahilan Kadirgamar, of Jaffna
  3. M.J.H. Amandakoon, Univ. of Peradeniya
  4. Amalka Wijesuriya, of Ruhuna
  5. Anuruddha Karunarathna, of Peradeniya
  6. Anushka Kahandagama, formerly of Colombo
  7. Arjuna Aluwihare, formerly of Peradeniya
  8. Arjuna Parakrama, of Peradeniya
  9. Aruni Samarakoon, of Ruhuna
  10. Athulasiri Samarkoon, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  11. Avanka Fernando, of Colombo
  12. P.B.W. Rathnayake, Univ. of Peradeniya
  13. Barana Jayawardana, of Peradeniya
  14. Bahirathy R, Univ. of Jaffna
  15. Buddhima Padmasiri, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  16. Camena Guneratne, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  17. Chirath Jeewantha, of Ruhuna
  18. Chulani Kodikara formely of Colombo
  19. Crystal Baines, of Peradeniya
  20. Dayapala Thiranagma, formerly of Kelaniya
  21. Dhammika Gamage, of Peradeniya
  22. Dhammika Herath, of Peradeniya
  23. Dhammika Jayawardena of Sri Jayawardenepura
  24. Dhanuka Bandara formerly Of Peradeniya
  25. Dilini Hemachandra, of Peradeniya
  26. Dinesha Samararatne of Colombo
  27. Erandika de Silva, of Jaffna
  28. Farzana Haniffa, of Colombo

 

  1. Fazeeha Azmi, Univ of Peradeniya
  2. Ganganee Chamdima Samaraweera, of Ruhuna
  3. H.M.T.V.K. Jayasooriya, Univ. of Peradeniya
  4. Harshana Rambukwella, formerly The Open University of Sri Lanka
  5. Hasini Lecamwasam, of Peradeniya
  6. Hasitha Pathirana of Kelaniya
  7. Hettigamage Sriyananda, The Open University of Sri Lanka (Professor Emeritus)
  8. Hiniduma Sunil Senevi, of Sabaragamuwa
  9. Imani Bakmeedeniya, of Peradeniya
  10. Jayadeva Uyangoda, of Colombo (Professor Emeritus)
  11. Janith Wickramasinghe, of Colombo
  12. Jennifer Edama, of Peradeniya
  13. Jithmi Athukorale, of Peradeniya
  14. M.Vihangi Semini, Univ. of Peradeniya
  15. Kamani Sylva, of Peradeniya
  16. Kanchuka Dharmasiri, of Peradeniya
  17. Kasun Gajasinghe, of Peradeniya
  18. Kaushalya Perera, of Colombo
  19. Kethakie Nagahawatte of Colombo
  20. Krishan Siriwadhana, of Colombo
  21. Krishantha Fedricks, Uni. of Colombo
  22. Krishmi Apsara, of Peradeniya
  23. Kumudu Kusum Kumara, formerly of Colombo
  24. A.M.Jayasinghe,Univ. Of Peradeniya
  25. Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Of Peradeniya
  26. Madhara Karunarathna, of Peradeniya
  27. Maduranga Kalugampitiya, of Peradeniya
  28. Mahendran Thiruvarangan, of Jaffna
  29. Malika Perera, of Peradeniya
  30. A. Nuhman. Formerly Univ. of Peradeniya
  31. Muditha Dharmasiri: of Peradeniya

 

  1. Nadeesh de Silva, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  2. Nalika Ranathunge, of Ruhuna
  3. Neavis Morais, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  4. Nicola Perera, of Colombo
  5. Nilantha Liyanage, of Ruhuna
  6. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, of Colombo
  7. Sivakaran, Univ. of Jaffna
  8. W. Prins, Univ. of Ruhuna
  9. Paba Suraweera, of Peradeniya
  10. Pavithra Jayawardena, of Colombo
  11. M. Jayaweera Univ. of Peradeniya
  12. Prabha Manuratne, of Kelaniya
  13. Prabhath Jayasinghe, University of Colombo
  14. Pradeepa Korale Gedara, of Peradeniya
  15. Pradeep Peiris, of Colombo
  16. Priyantha Fonseka of Peradeniya
  17. T.Gamalath, Univ. of Peradeniya
  18. Ramesh Ramasamy, of Peradeniya
  19. Ramila Usoof, of Peradeniya
  20. Ramindu Perera, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  21. Ramya Kumar, of Jaffna
  22. Ranjini Obeyesekere; formerly , of Peradeniya
  23. Ranjit Wijekoon, formerly of Peradeniya
  24. Rupika Rajakaruna, of Peradeniya
  25. Ruth Surenthiraraj, of Colombo
  26. Sabreena Niles, of Kelaniya
  27. Sachithra Edirisinghe, formerly of Peradeniya
  28. Sahan Wanniarachchi,Univ. of Peradeniya
  29. Sahani Situbandara, of Peradeniya
  30. Saman Pushpakumara, of Peradeniya
  31. Sasanka Perera, Formerly of Colombo

 

  1. Sasinindu Patabendige, of Jaffna
  2. Savitri Goonesekere, of Colombo (Professor Emeritus)
  3. Selvaraj Vishvika, of Peradeniya
  4. Shalini Wijerathna,Univ. of Peradeniya
  5. Shamala Kumar, of Peradeniya
  6. Sitralega Maunaguru formerly Eastern Sri Lanka
  7. Sivamohan Sumathy, of Peradeniya
  8. Sudesh Mantillake, of Peradeniya
  9. Sumith Chaaminda, of Colombo
  10. Supoorna Kulatunga, of Peradeniya
  11. Suranjith Gunasekara, of Ruhuna
  12. Susantha Rasnayake, of Peradeniya
  13. Susith Siriwardhana, Rajarata of Sri Lanka
  14. Shyamani Hettiarachchi, of Kelaniya
  15. Thiru Kandiah, formerly of Peradeniya
  16. Thushara Kamalrathne, Univ of Peradeniya
  17. Udara Rajapaksha, of Peradeniya
  18. Udari Abeysinghe, of Peradeniya
  19. Unnathi Samaraweera,Univ. of Colombo
  20. Upul Abeyrathne, of Peradeniya
  21. Varangana Ratwatta, of Peradeniya
  22. Vijaya Kumar, of Peradeniya (Professor Emeritus)
  23. Visakesa Chandrasekaram, of Colombo
  24. Vivimarie Vanderpoorten Medawattegedera, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  25. M. Rohan Laksiri, Univ. of Ruhuna
  26. Yasas Kulasekara, of Peradeniya

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