National Sections of the L5I:

Strikes force Sri Lankan government to retreat

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The government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has been forced to retreat over a new pension scheme that would rob workers of their savings.

On May 20, 20,000 textile workers, the majority of them women, in the Free Trade Area at Katunayake, began a strike against the new scheme. As many as 12 trade unions were involved but only three of these organise on a national scale. After a week on strike, the national leaderships called off the strike on the promise of negotiations with the government. However, the government made no move to open discussions and the workers themselves decided to continue the strike.

This got a result: the Labour Minister agreed to face-to-face talks with the workers' direct representatives. In the end he agreed to delay further progress of the bill in Parliament to allow “reconsideration".

That night, police raided the workers' hostels in an attempt to catch local activists and leaders of the strike. The following morning, workers decided to continue the strike in protest at this police repression. Work resumed on Sunday but on Monday there was again a heavy police presence in the Free Trade Area. Workers decided to strike again against this provocative aggression.

The police responded by attacking strikers, forcing their way into workplaces and arresting workers. At least one was reported shot. At this, the workers organised themselves to fight back and in the pitched battle that followed, 213 were injured, with 50 hospitalised. Of them, 36 were women.

That night, police went into the hospital grounds and even patrolled the wards trying to intimidate the injured workers. The following day, Tuesday, 400 strikers demonstrated outside the hospital to show solidarity with their injured comrades.

Forcing the government to retreat is certainly a victory for the workers. In particular, it shows the importance of workers having their own local leaders to represent them in negotiations. But, if this battle is won, the war is certainly not yet over. Rajapaksa may make some minor changes to the pension scheme but he has not dropped it altogether. He may exclude the textile industry from the whole scheme, but every other worker will still be hit by it.

The task now is to organise all workers to stop the bill for good. For that, workers in all industries need to act together. We must demand that all union leaders, especially the leaders of the national unions, coordinate action to force Rajapaksa to drop the bill altogether. But we cannot rely on the existing leaders, just as in Katunayake, workers need local organisation under their own control, elected joint trade union committees at all levels. All decisions should be taken at mass meetings of the workers.

A united, militant campaign can force the government to drop its plans but we should go further than that. We should demand trade union control of the existing pension funds and the opening of their accounts to the workers' representatives. It's our money we should control it!

Stupid - or dishonest? Labour minister insults workers
In a desperate attempt to cover up the government's retreat, the Labour Minister, Gamini Lokuge, has resorted to cheap insults. He said he thought the workers hadn't understood the proposal and that extra time is needed to educate them!

In fact, the workers understand it very well. One 25 year old textile worker, P.Malathi, told the Sunday Times, “this is sheer daylight robbery, it shouldn't be allowed!" And she was absolutely right. She explained that under the new scheme workers would only be entitled to take back their contributions as a lump sum after they have paid into the scheme for 10 years without a break.

Most textile workers, 80%, are young women who work, at most, for seven years and then return to their villages to marry. At present, they can reclaim their money on proof of marriage. Under the new scheme they would not be entitled to any payment, the government would keep every Rupee! What is that if not “sheer daylight robbery”?

A pension scheme is simply an enforced savings scheme. If a worker decided to put part of their wages into a savings bank each week, nobody would say that they could not take their money whenever they wanted. In a pension scheme, the contribution is deducted before the wages are paid, but the money still comes from the workers' wage. The pension fund, therefore, is the workers' own money. It does not belong to the employer or to the government. It should be controlled by the workers or their elected representatives. If the minister does not understand this, we would have to say that he is either very, very stupid or very, very dishonest.