Thursday, 1 May 2014 00:00
MAY Day is for the workers. Therefore it is the best time to take into account the hardships as well as duties that are the birthright, so to speak, of every worker.
Sri Lanka is well-known for its pro-employee labour laws, which have been kept largely unchanged, during the last few decades. However, the environment those laws were to operate in have changed drastically over the same amount of time, making legal frameworks unproductive.
Even though times have changed, the power of collective bargaining has not. Trade unions remain one of the strongest bodies in Sri Lanka and possibly the only one to regularly thwart the Government and get their way. Whether it is in removing a corrupt Postmaster General or defeating an ill-thought-out private sector pension plan, or fighting the cost of living, trade unions have proved that they are a formidable force.
However, there is also duty to counterbalance these positives. Doctors, nurses, electricity workers and buses along with a multitude of private and public workers regularly go on strike, leaving the masses destitute. While it is acknowledged that they have worthwhile grievances, these cannot be rectified at the cost of other people. It’s a tough call to say the least, so what are the points that policymakers can focus on to make this May Day more meaningful?
The Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC), for example, has consistently called for revamping of labour laws and productivity-linked payment schemes. Sri Lanka records an unemployment rate of 17% in respect of youth, more than double the national level. This is directly tied into employers who believe the labour law framework in the country obstructs employment generation.
EFC insists that the requirement is not a ‘hire and fire’ regime. Neither should it be a ‘hire forever’ regime. It is time that a balance is struck between rights and obligations. Sri Lanka’s employment framework is skewed far too much towards “rights” without any emphasis on obligations. ‘Security of employment’ is perceived on the basis of a tight regulatory framework.
True security of employment can only be found by employees acquiring relevant skills that are needed by employers at any given time. Workers need to change to suit the needs of today. The EFC stresses that it is time that Sri Lanka shifts focus towards a more proactive employment relationship that would help in creating a necessary environment for economic development in the country.
More than raising banners and shouting at rallies, the more meaningful celebration of May Day would be to see how these ends can be achieved. How can politicisation, especially of trade unions in the plantation sectors, be reduced? How can workers gain more skills? In short, how can they be broken out of this sense of entitlement and be made to understand that they must earn their security?
Workers’ rights must be balanced with competence and duty. The public service is another category of ‘worker’ who needs to be made both competent and independent. Without significant reforms and change of attitude, May Day will remain nothing more than just another national holiday.