Striking a balance

Tuesday, 26 December 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The festive season is a brief respite from the daily problems that plague Sri Lanka and filter down to individual lives. Strikes, which are often enthusiastically held in Sri Lanka, reached a 10-year high last year, data by the Central Bank revealed after an overall 104,327 man-days were squandered in 41 strikes, the worst tally since 2007.

A man-day is defined as “an industrial unit of production equal to the work one person can produce in a day.” It was reported over the weekend that the Central Bank data showed labour relations in the private sector took the biggest hit last year. In comparison, 65,655 man-days were lost in 2008 and 82,294 in 2015 when strikes peaked at 51 each.

The 2016 Central Bank annual report records an increase of 38.5% in the total number of workers involved in strikes, driven mainly by employees of sectors other than plantations. The total number of man-days lost due to strikes increased by 21% in the plantation sector and by 61% in sectors other than plantations.

Central Bank concedes the higher strikes could indicate deteriorating labour relations. The situation has reached such levels that the Ministry of Labour and Trade Union Relations is continuing measures to improve workplace cooperation and industrial harmony in the private sector. But strikes continued into 2017, including across the public sector.

That said, however, the right to protest is something that any self-respecting democracy should at least pretend to uphold. In most civilised societies, the right to peaceful protest is a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom of speech. In Sri Lanka, it is recognised as a fundamental right. While there is an argument to be made that the Government shouldn’t cower in the face of politically motivated protests that are clearly organised to inconvenience the ruling party, this Government, which came into power on a platform of good governance, should at least on the surface appear to recognise the people’s right to take to the streets.

Historically, protests have often inspired positive social change and the advancement of human rights, and they continue to help define and protect civic space in all parts of the world. Protests encourage the development of an engaged and informed citizenry. They strengthen representative democracy by enabling direct participation in public affairs. 

As the Government aims to embark on an ambitious public sector reforms process next year strikes are unlikely to reduce, which means stronger engagement and communication, will become key to limit impact on the economy. This would mean communication between politicians and unions as well as the public at large will become crucial. Such levels of communication have not been the Government’s strength so far and a change in this regard would be welcome. 

Providing more funding, stamping out corruption, increasing transparency and implementing sustainable solutions are some ways for the Government to prevent or resolve strikes faster. On their part unions need to consider the effect they have on the nation rather than sticking to an “our way or the strike way” policy that is undermining multiple sectors. It is time to work together or risk more chaos.