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
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
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
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
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
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.