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Sunday, 28 October 2012

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Are trade union demands realistic?

It was only a week ago that university lecturers ended their 100-day strike and returned to work. Due to the irresponsible trade union action on the part of the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA), work at all universities countrywide came to a complete standstill, causing immense heartburn to thousands of undergraduates.

University dons initially demanded a salary increase, several other perks and preferential treatment. Subsequently, FUTA cadged a more attractive slogan from the extremist JVP, which had a notorious track record on insurgency, protests, demonstrations and unruly acts.

The infamous FUTA protest march, from Galle to Colombo, attracted a large number of opportunist Opposition politicians. Most of the lecturers and even those with the least basic knowledge of economics knew only too well that demanding six percent of the country's Gross Domestic Production (GDP) was unrealistic and unjust. Nevertheless, they continued with the slogan as it looked more attractive than the customary demands of salary hikes.

Following the timely intervention of Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the university lecturers abandoned their trade union action and got their full salaries for the three-and-a-half-month period they kept away from work.

Just a few days after the university dons' strike concluded, doctors, nurses, teachers and school principals flexed their muscle, demanding a salary increase. The jackpot question is whether their latest demands for a salary increase is justifiable. The 2013 Budget which is round the corner will be presented next month in Parliament by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his capacity as Finance Minister.

The Government would undoubtedly increase its budgetary allocations on education and health and thereby present another people-friendly budget for the ensuing year. Any salary increase for public servants would be determined by the 2013 Budget which will no doubt set apart a staggering amount of funds on welfare measures and national security.

Hence, is it fair for doctors, nurses, teachers and school principals to resort to trade union action on the eve of the 2013 Budget? As professionals, they should wait until the 2013 Budget is presented to know what is in store and for the public well-being. Whatever trade union action they intend taking should be put on hold until the forthcoming Budget proposals are presented.

It is as clear as daylight that school principals and teachers have taken the 'six percent of the GDP for education' cue from university lecturers. Never in the country's history have respected educationists such as university dons, school principals and teachers descended to such an abysmal level to take trade union action at the expense of the future of students and undergraduates.

The so-called salary anomalies in the health sector have been a perennial issue with doctors, medical practitioners (AMPs), nurses, paramedics and minor workers taking 'turns', thereby crippling work at Government hospitals for a considerable period of time during the year. Consequently, the poor patients who seek treatment at Government hospitals undergo tremendous hardships, despite the Government pumping a staggering sum of money on free health annually.

The impact of trade union action on the health sector has been manifest due to the number of deaths and other setbacks while the damage caused due to strikes in the universities and schools is not felt immediately. However, the impact on society and the masses due to wildcat strikes in the health and education sectors are akin as the Government allocates a huge amount of public funds on free health and free education, which are unheard of even in most developed countries.

One may wonder as to whether the eradication of terrorism and the subsequent peaceful environment prevailing in the country helped trade union leaders to resort to strikes at the drop of a hat. When LTTE terrorism was at its peak, most trade unions were mortally afraid to take chances as the Tigers exploded bombs anywhere and everywhere targeting the public.

With terrorism defeated under the political sagacity of President Rajapaksa, a free and peaceful environment has been created for trade union leaders to resort to trade union action as and when they please. Does this imply that too much democracy is bad for a country such as Sri Lanka as most trade unions fail to make the best use of the current five-star democracy?

In days gone by, trade union action began with the initial work-to-rule campaigns and token strikes which preceded a general strike. But today's trade union activists resort to strikes even for the most trivial reason, causing great inconvenience and hardship for the masses.

Just as much as doctors and nurses, or any other employee for that matter, have the inalienable right to resort to trade union action, the public too have the right to receive what is due to them, as public funds are expended to sustain the country's health sector. In like vein, principals and teachers too have the right to take trade union action. But they should bear in mind that students also have a legitimate right to education without any hassle.

The Executive Presidency, introduced by the UNP regime of J.R. Jayewardene in 1978 destroyed the country's trade union movement by sacking thousands of public servants who took part in the July 1980 general strike.

Opposition politicians have conveniently forgotten the 1977-1994 dark era under successive UNP regimes led by former Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and R. Premadasa. Freedom of expression, the rights of the working class to take trade union action, the independence of the judiciary, the rights of people to support a political party of their choice and staging political rallies or processions came to a virtual standstill at the time.

Hence, it behoves all right-thinking trade union leaders to refrain from abusing the freedom they now enjoy. They should also bear in mind that a strike should be the last resort as it causes much inconvenience to the public.

President Rajapaksa, a champion trade union leader, has amply demonstrated his solicitude for the working class. He made a praiseworthy contribution when he was Labour Minister. In this scenario, the Government's kindness should not be construed as a sign of weakness.

At the same time, the working class and moderate trade union activists should be more prudent and not fall prey to opportunist Opposition politicians who could not muster public support at successive elections, especially the JVP and its high-handed trade union and student wings. Hapless workers should not be made scapegoats for these extremist elements who are hell-bent on achieving their narrow political goals.

The Government, led by President Rajapaksa, is making a determined and sincere effort to usher in a better tomorrow. The number of mega development projects launched in the country has shown unprecedented development.

The dividends of the hard-earned peace could not be experienced overnight as the Government continues to spend a colossal amount of funds for development, defence and social well-being.

The working class, which enjoys its rights and privileges, should also pause to think whether they are making a tangible contribution to the nation. Their social obligations too are equally important.

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