MISTAKES are also lessons for the future. The Government has stated that even though this Pension Bill for the private sector has been withdrawn, its goal will be achieved through another format. This means that a future Pension Bill is a very real expectation and therefore it would be best to view what the Government can do differently to prevent the present circumstances from repeating.
Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella at the weekly Cabinet press briefing admitted that the Government did not create enough awareness of the Pension Bill and its objectives. This lack of transparency was the main reason that people suspected the document and had little faith in it. In future the Government should take early measures to create a talking forum so that all stakeholders are aware of the facts in a Bill. Not only would this give them a clear picture, but it would also prevent them from being misled.
Taking the integral points of the Bill to the masses through vernacular media is very important. Technical issues in particular need to be discussed in depth, especially since few people would read the Bill in its legal form. Therefore, the document must be presented in an understandable format by an impartial party. Trade unionists and employers should have access to the document and the freedom to express their viewpoints efficiently. A strong dialogue must take place so that contentious points can be ironed out rather than allowed to fester to boiling point.
It is also important to take time when such a sensitive piece of paper is presented. Many critiques point out that the due process was not followed by the Government. Usually labour matters are discussed by the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC), which is a tripartite body composed of employers, trade unions and Government officials. It is chaired by the Labour Minister. However, this process was circumvented to a certain extent in this instance and was only returned to when business chambers made an appeal to the President to intervene. At the last round of discussions with the NLAC, the Finance Ministry officials agreed to format a fresh draft of the Bill, but by then negative publicity had spread wide.
There was also fear that the Pension Bill would be rushed through Parliament. Having seen similar Bills being fast-tracked through Parliament, most stakeholders were fearful of the fate of the pension scheme. If the Pension Bill is for the entire private sector, self-employed and migrant workers, as the Cabinet decided, then each party needs to understand what their benefits are. In the present Bill apparel workers were initially included and then the Government took them out when the sad events of the Katunayake Free Trade Zone reached a violent point. Such reactionary measures cannot be allowed in the next round.
For about seven million workers in the private sector, a pension is a critical decision on their future. Any topic that serious will get plenty of mileage in the media and interest from people. Any attempt to brush the negative aspects aside will result in a violent backlash, as can be seen today, culminating in an unnecessary death. Many people are not opposed to the idea of a pension plan for the private sector, but it needs to be done with transparency and responsibility. It is time for the Government to show what it has learned in the next round.