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Trade unions and public interest

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 9 August 2018 00:00

Trade unions are an important facet of democracy, but in Sri Lanka they evoke mixed feelings, as the public views them as both protectors of labour rights and self-serving organisations that have stopped considering the public’s welfare. A lightning strike by several railway trade unions on Wednesday afternoon is a good example of how trade union power can have regressive consequences.

The flash strike, which was not announced in advance, left thousands of commuters stranded. The irate travellers expressed their anger by gathering at the Fort Railway Station and protesting the striking unions. A flustered Transport Ministry, scrambling to deal with the situation, issued a notice that rail tickets could be used as bus passes on Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) buses. But this would have provided limited relief, as most people would find themselves stranded for hours, and other modes of already overburdened public transport such as private buses would have had to absorb the sudden increase of commuters. 

Many train travellers who commute to the city come from areas outside the Colombo District, and taking away their favoured mode of transport without notice causes massive hardship. Sri Lankans are used to not getting their mail on time, going to a hospital to find doctors are on strike, and being regularly stuck in long lines of traffic because of student protests. For the public, strikes seem to be an unrelenting barrage on their daily existence, and significantly reduces the quality of life that they enjoy. 

Few would dispute that strikes are effective. But the more effective the strike, the more it deprives the public of essential services. These same trade unions are also part of public institutions that regularly post billions of rupees in losses. Yet despite this, they are also given annual salary increases and other perks that are funded by the taxpayer. Given this situation, it is not surprising that many average Sri Lankans are resentful of trade unions and challenge their frequently-resorted-to capacity to strike. 

Given Sri Lanka’s socio-economic dynamics, public jobs are preferred over private sector ones. Governments frequently boost their popularity by increasing recruitments, without thinking of the cost of expanding an ineffective public service. Recently, Cabinet approved hiring 20,000 unemployed graduates just for 2018, and the expectation is this will continue next year as elections inch closer. Many of these appointments are likely to be made to non-essential areas that require little technical training. This makes it harder for public sector reforms to be implemented, and they are usually fought tooth and nail by trade unions. 

In fact, so ubiquitous has the trade union attitude to protecting its turf become that many private sector professional associations also resort to similar ideals of self-interest over public good in their dealings with the Government. All this has left the public out in the cold. Labour rights are crucial to social equity and sustainable development. They play a huge role in ensuring that common citizens have access to the returns of a developing economy, and that returns are equitably distributed. Trade unions must remember this historical goal, because otherwise they may soon find themselves despised for protecting their own interests over that of the public.  

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