A ‘nation first’ agenda

Friday, 1 May 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We are celebrating May Day once again. Trade unions and workers all over the world celebrate this day with much passion and enthusiasm. It is regarded as the International Workers’ Day which commemorates the famous strike at McCormick Reaper Works factory in Chicago on 3 May 1886, which witnessed an attack by the police killing four and wounding many others. The reason for the strike was a demand for an eight-hour working day on the part of Labour Unions. In other words, a demand for a fundamental labour standard which can be considered very reasonable. Almost 130 years have passed since then and the world of work today has been changed and transformed in many ways. The International Labour Organization, which was set up in 1919, has adopted many conventions on labour standards which countries have ratified. Labour standards have become part of national legislation in many countries. Sri Lanka can easily be regarded as one of the countries that have a very formidable body of labour laws safeguarding labour standards. No proactive changes in trade unionism in Sri Lanka Against this background of change, we have not seen any proactive changes in trade unionism in Sri Lanka. The reason for this is well explained by S.R. de Silva, leading author and expert on industrial law and relations in Sri Lanka, in his presentation made at the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon on 18 May 2004 on the topic ‘Labour Law and Relations in Development: Sri Lanka’. He stated: “South Asian countries, such as Sri Lanka, have been characterised by political instability and National populist governments whose labour law and relations policies promoted a labour movement dependent on the State to serve its political and economic interests. In return for government support, the labour movement received job protection and other facilities. Trade unions enjoyed political patronage and power and were sometimes represented in Parliament. With little regard to labour costs, as domestic markets were initially captive markets, conditions needed to compete in export markets such as productivity, quality and skills received little attention. The policy on equity, implemented exclusively through labour protection led to inefficiency and an inflexible labour market.” This statement of de Silva very succinctly encapsulates the reality of labour relations today in Sri Lanka. We are at a time when globalisation has intensified. Countries such as Sri Lanka having small domestic markets are required to compete fiercely in the export market. The attitude of successive governments seem to reflect what is “popular” in the eyes of the public. This is clearly demonstrated by the reluctance on the part of the Government to modify and change the labour laws to suit the current requirements in the world of work. Some of the changes that have been proposed by employers have not been contentious issues, but on the other hand, issues that should have been supported by trade unions as well. For example, removal of restriction on night work for women under the Shop and Office Employees Act, especially in relation to those who are engaged in IT-related activities, is an obvious change that needs to be made in our law. The prohibitive provision is already a dead letter in the law. Identify issues from a national perspective It was certainly very refreshing to hear President Maithripala Sirisena in his recent statement to the nation refer to himself as the “chief worker of the people”. What he articulated thereafter was a focus on ‘nation first’ before self. It is therefore important for us to identify issues that need to be addressed in employee relations from a national perspective rather than an individual stakeholder standpoint. Recently, there was a request made by the Government to increase wages of the private sector employees by Rs. 2,500. The proposed increase in the Interim Budget referred to increases in productivity and non-cash benefits linked to it. This proposal was thereafter taken out of context by some of the trade unions and converted to a demand for a piece of legislation, making it mandatory for all private sector employers to grant a wage increase. Introducing legislation to that effect is counterproductive. The image that Sri Lanka projects in the eyes of foreign investors will undoubtedly be undermined and adversely affected through such unilateral Government intervention on private sector wages. What are the issues that need to be addressed? What are the issues that we need to address from a national standpoint? This is the question that all stakeholders in employment must address together for Sri Lanka to move forward on the path of progress and prosperity. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that our legal framework on employee relations is archaic and needs urgent revision to suit the modern requirements of the world of work. This does not mean that Sri Lanka should adopt a ‘hire and fire’ policy. We need to have a basic legal framework of labour protection with room for flexibility in respect of contractual arrangements, work force size, working times and functions. Freedom of association and collective bargaining should be respected and protected, but not mandatorily imposed through legislation. It is more important that we create an enabling environment for freedom of association and collective bargaining to flourish as these are concepts that are dependent on human relationships which cannot be forced down on people. We need to focus on enterprise relations and strengthen mutual understanding between management and workers at the workplace. The ‘nation first’ agenda should also focus on enhancing skills and productivity. This has been one of the four pillars that was identified in the labour policy enshrined in the ‘Mahinda Chinthana 10-Year Horizon Development Framework,’ which was launched in 2007. With regard to skills, we have situations where there are people without jobs and jobs without people. We need to understand that to survive as a middle income country we need to expand and develop our knowledge economy, in which employees’ perceptions and attitudes are different. We need to understand the aspirations of the millennial generation which are totally different to the aspirations of Generation X and Generation Y. Enhancing productivity means being more efficient in what you do. This does not mean that you are required to work harder or be exploited. It requires you to work smarter in what you do. We need to balance efficiency and equity to achieve success. One cannot be achieved without the other. Ageing population and social security Another very important reality that Sri Lanka needs to accept is the fact that Sri Lanka’s population is ageing fast. This has a direct impact on our workforce. It is estimated that 20% of the population will be over 60 years of age as we enter the 2040s. Additionally, 63% of the Sri Lankan working population being in the informal sector makes it difficult for the State to provide support. Social security has been a subject that has been discussed and deliberated over the years. The question has often been asked as to whether the retired employees in the private sector are adequately protected by the current social security schemes such as the Employees Provident Fund, the Employees Trust Fund and Gratuity. It is a fact that the private sector employers make a significant contribution to superannuation benefits of employees compared to other countries in the region. Are these benefits effective? Do these benefits assist the employees in their retirement? These are questions that are often answered in the negative. Lump sum payments of this nature are often exhausted on various family responsibilities that burden retired parents. It is therefore imperative for us to look at some new options which will give some tangible benefits to employees in the private sector in their retirement. There have been various attempts to introduce pension schemes to the private sector which has not been a successful exercise. We need to be realistic in addressing this issue as we cannot try to emulate social policies of the West, when we are still grappling with economic problems of a developing country. We need to do what we can. Something that can be sustained. Time to focus on the ‘nation first’ agenda In the light of the above, it is time that all stakeholders in employment focus on the ‘nation first’ agenda without looking at their own interests which may not necessarily assist in achieving the development goals of our country. In this context, I am reminded of the famous speech of Brutus in the Shakespearean play ‘Julius Caesar’. Brutus, in his speech at Caesar’s funeral, trying to justify the killing of Caesar in the interests of the country, said: “Not that I love Caesar less, but that I love Rome more.” This statement, literally, gives a profound message to all of us who naturally like to do what is popular and accepted by the people. This, however, may not be in the interest of the country. Let us hope that the waves of good governance will sweep away the archaic laws and bring in the necessary reforms in employment law in the best interest of Sri Lanka (The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and Director General of the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon.)

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