Strikes: not a winning formula | Sunday Observer

Strikes: not a winning formula

19 March, 2023

There is a raging debate in society as well as in the media about the present wave of strikes organised by certain Trade Unions (TUs) which oppose the Government’s new tax structure. Some have wisely decided not to engage in a continuous strike, taking into consideration the hardships caused to the public and also assurances by the Presidential Secretariat that their grievances would be looked into as soon as the economic situation improves following the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout.

In fact, a theory was floated by some analysts that the strike move was, in effect, a sinister attempt by certain TUs and political parties to sabotage the IMF Extended Fund Facility (EFF) that is likely to be decided on by its Board tomorrow (March 20). If so, it is indeed a sad indictment on the mindset of some of our leading Opposition political parties and TUs who seem to be hell bent on politically damaging the ruling coalition at this critical juncture rather than helping to put the moribund economy on the correct track.

Even the vociferous Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has essentially backed the strikes, has stressed that it cannot support continuous strikes in sectors such as health and education, given the dire consequences for the innocent public. The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) has also decided not to engage in a continuous strike, based on assurances given by the Government. This is a welcome move.

The moderate sections and personalities in the Opposition seem to be coming round to the fact that strikes in some sectors can be devastating to the public as well as to the economy. Last week, Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) MP Eran Wickremaratne took a rather bold step by essentially calling for a ban on strikes or TU action in the health sector, though his party is generally supportive of the strikers.

He has cited the examples of Police and the Security Forces, whose officers and other rankers are bound by law not to resort to strikes under whatever circumstances. This is an idea that goes beyond the current Essential Services (ES) Orders and legal scholars should take a serious look at this proposal, vis-à-vis its legal feasibility and implications. Some others have called for the inclusion of the teaching profession too in such a legal framework, given how critical it is to educate the next generation who had already lost around three years of education due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Quite apart from the damage caused in societal terms, such as patients being unable to attend their clinics or get their medicines, the economic cost of Wednesday’s one-day strike has been estimated at over Rs.40 billion. This kind of figure has not been reported even at the height of the Covid pandemic, when the entire country was practically shut down for months on end.

This does not even include the losses incurred as a result of some ships taking their transshipment business elsewhere as a result of the paralysis in the Colombo Port. It was cringe worthy to see some Port TU leaders boasting about the number of ships that turned back, quite oblivious to the massive economic damage caused. The only silver lining was that the private passenger transport sector was not involved in the strike and even most Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) were on the roads, absorbing the spillover crowd from the trains that did not run. This reduced the inconvenience caused to the public to some extent.

The Government has promised to take tough action against the strikers, as there is a distinct possibility of the country plunging deeper into the economic crisis if the strikes persist. This is a situation we can ill afford at this time. Some have even invoked the scenario of July 1980, where thousands of Public Servants who had gone on strike were deemed to have vacated their posts overnight. Although this seemed to be a very harsh measure, many analysts say that President J.R. Jayewardene’s decisive action sent a strong signal to overseas investors on the Government’s commitment to maintain industrial peace. Indeed, the Free Trade Zones (FTZs) at Katunayake and Biyagama would not have gotten off the ground if President Jayewardene let the strikers have their own way.

The TUs and the political parties pulling their strings must realise that the country is bigger than egos. Yes, it is true that professionals and other segments of society are having a difficult time due to the new taxes, high Cost of Living and other factors, but good times are ahead once the IMF EFF facility makes its presence felt in all sectors of the economy. The taxes are certainly not set in stone and are likely to be reviewed as soon as the economic conditions allow. As President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said repeatedly, the Opposition parties and TUs must help the Government to ride out the economic storm and sail the ship of State to calmer waters.


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