President Gotabaya Rajapaksa this week called on trade unions to attempt an “attitudinal shift” so that they can become stronger stakeholders in the development process. The focus on trade unions in Sri Lanka is important because they wield significant power and have become so politicised at times that their responsibility towards workers sometimes gets overshadowed.
When one thinks of unions in Sri Lanka the organisations that spring to mind are those that govern the medical profession, the Ceylon Electricity Board, plantations and railways. These, among many others have been accused of playing politics or working only for the betterment of their members and not the public in general. This has led to the public viewing trade unions as hindrances and perhaps an outdated mechanism to safeguard and promote labour rights.
However, what must be kept in mind is that not all trade unions are created equal and this sphere is also a fractured space. Unions, having been politicised for decades, could now face challenges in drawing attention to genuine problems. They could also be woefully distanced from modern labour problems and the need for different thinking to solve them.
There are also legal impediments. While Sri Lanka has ratified ILO conventions 87 and 98 pertaining to freedom of association – the right to organise and collective bargaining – the implementation of these conventions remains underwhelming, with multiple reports of union busting and restrictions on collective bargaining.
The difference between trade unions in the public and private sector is pronounced, with a strict separation between the two. Public sector trade unions are forbidden to federalise with other trade unions, whether public or private, under Article 21 of the Trade Union Ordinance of 1935. Public sector trade unions also experience significant fragmentation within their own areas of work, with over 50 trade unions in some public sectors such as railways, leading to difficulties in obtaining representative status, which requires 40% of workers within a given field to be members of the trade union. This affects their collective bargaining power and has led to infighting and one-upmanship between them.
The National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) is not a legal entity and is rather a consultative body, comprised of government, employers, and representatives of the ‘most representative’ trade unions in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the NLAC is seen as unrepresentative by many smaller trade unions, as the metrics on representivity used by the Government in appointing unions to the Council are unreliable, given the lack of a verification process on the part of the Government in determining the membership of trade unions.
There has also been reports that the Department of Labour is seen to be pro-employer in the resolution of disputes in the private sector. This is due, in part, to a proclivity of the Department to be seen as pro-investment, and its desire to reduce obstacles to foreign capital and enterprise from entering the country. Concerns have also been raised regarding the failure of the Department to intervene in disputes in a timely fashion or to implement compromises which it had helped to broker.
Obstacles to freedom of association have been particularly reported in Free Trade Zones (FTZs), where interventions of the Department of Labour have been limited in practice. Trade unions should not be seen as the enemy but they, together with the public sector and the private sector, are needed to empower labour to solve genuine problems.