Discouraging unconscionable strikes

Friday, 7 September 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Dr. A.C. Visvalingam

The citizens of this country are utterly disappointed by the Government’s pusillanimous responses to the profusion of unconscionable strikes that are called by various groups that cause immense inconvenience and hardship, loss of time and money, and even deprivation of life and limb of fellow citizens. 

The timing and nature of most of the strikes that have taken place over the past three to four years indicate that the motivation behind them is less the direct self-interest of the strikers and more the unscrupulous political objectives of their leaders. 

President and 

PM must act together

The first step that must be taken to deal with strikes by State employees is for the President and the Prime Minister to act together in a manner that is consistent with their powerful but interdependent positions. They must stop pussy-footing in the face of threats by crooked strike leaders whose demands get more and more outrageous in the face of hesitant governmental responses. 

These two most senior elected personages should stop fighting each other for their personal benefit, give much less importance to elections and their candidatures for presidency, and work more for the country. They should cut down severely on their excessive overseas visits, most of which have contributed little or no perceptible benefit to Sri Lanka and, instead, spend more time to deal constructively to stop strikes taking place. 

Most of all, they have to cooperate with each other and not allow anything they say or do to undermine the position of the other, however subtly such things are done. There could be nothing more advantageous to their common opponents than to see these two powerful entities back-stabbing each other whilst uncontrolled strikes continue to destroy any semblance of serious governance and economic growth.

Giving in to the demands presented by one group of strikers often leads to a domino-type succession of fresh strikes called by other groups trying to get to the head of the queue. Piecemeal solutions given to strikers’ demands almost automatically sow the seeds of an unwelcome harvest of new strikes. 

Therefore, if one wishes to forestall the domino effect of a settlement of one group’s grievances leading to an immediate call by some other group to make corresponding enhancements of its own remuneration and benefits, it would be imperative to have a comprehensive, balanced, legally-enforceable, overall schedule of remuneration and benefits covering all employee classifications. 

Equitable system to grade and reward all public servants

If one’s memory is to be relied upon, about two decades ago, Tissa Devendra was appointed to head a committee that was tasked with working out an equitable system of grading and rewarding all public servants. Unfortunately, political stupidity brought this exercise to a premature halt. 

President Sirisena has now appointed a high-powered committee to do something on similar lines before the end of October this year. Whereas this is a commendable move, it is doubtful whether the views of all affected parties could be collected and evaluated objectively for inclusion in the committee’s report within the short time available. Consequently, there is bound to be a need soon thereafter for clarification and amplification of the proposals that the new committee may be expected to put forward.  

In the circumstances, apart from what is being done hurriedly, legislation should be brought in to classify all State employment as being of a fundamentally “essential” character so that all those in State employment shall be bound by certain overall rules that would ensure conformity with this concept. 

There should be a formal mechanism for examining, within a specified timeframe, all claims that could lead to strike action and a strict procedure set out to be followed both by potential strikers and by the government to help arrive at a timely solution. 

It is plain common-sense that the absence of employees in any department whatsoever of government at a time when they should be at work inevitably results in wasted effort, wasted time and wasted money for members of the public who require official inputs of a thousand different kinds. Delays in securing official endorsement and approvals could mean that affected citizens could, in certain situations, suffer life-changing reverses. Any responsible person could readily envisage the damaging impact of such setbacks in countless critical situations. 

If the principle that all public servants are “essential” is enforced, any of them going on strike, without following clearly set out procedures for resolving whatever claims they may put forward from time to time, would be a violation of their terms of employment and a serious anti-social act for which there should be deterrent punishment. 

In this context, the most effective disincentive that would inhibit trade unions and other organised groups from breaking contracts irresponsibly or with an illegitimate collateral purpose would be the confiscation of property of not only the leaders of the illegally-striking unions or similar groupings but the individual strikers as well. Most specifically, any demand that is not strictly and solely related to the legitimate welfare of the strikers alone should be made a crime. 

In the current context, the most glaring example of a trade union that insists on blackmailing the Government and the people of Sri Lanka to accommodate the political agendas of its leaders rather than the protection of the rights of its members is the Government Medical Officers’ Union (GMOA). We have, in an earlier article, equated its methods with those of the LTTE and ISIS whose principal weapon of persuasion involved putting the lives of innocent civilians in extreme peril. The GMOA’s methodology has worsened in the interim. 

It would, of course, not be enough to have a wide-ranging document that assigns pay scales and perquisites in keeping with the qualifications, special skills, age limits, work experience, physical risks faced, uncongenial conditions of work and so on. There would need to be appropriate complementary documents that set out the conditions of service and the rules to be observed, individually and collectively, by all employees to resolve administrative errors and unjust treatment. There is already a large volume of official rules and regulations and all that would be required would be the careful revision and editing of this material to suit the new mechanism and procedures. 

Three broad categories

Although all State employment must, without exception, be classified as “essential”, it would be necessary, for practical reasons, to subdivide the types of services rendered by State employees into three broad categories and to adjust the remuneration and conditions of employment in keeping with the different responsibilities, risks and hours of work that each category would have to take on, as briefly outlined below. 

Category 1 of the “essential” services would be those whose place of work and the number of hours to be worked are those that would apply to those engaged almost exclusively in administrative or other regular work. They would not be exposed to any significant work-related risks. About the only time that they would be called upon to work outside their offices and routine “rounds” would be if and when they are called upon to perform election duties. 

Category 2 of the “essential” services would be those whose working hours are controlled by time-tables, as in the transport business, or who have to work shifts to run public utilities such as the supply, distribution and maintenance of electricity, water and so on during nights, weekends, public holidays etc. Moreover, some doctors, some nurses, most customs officials and immigration officials may also fit into this classification. 

Category 3 would be those who not only have to work in the areas of maintaining law and order, fire-fighting, armed services and so on, but are often called upon to work irregular, long hours and occasionally face risk of death and injury from criminals, terrorists, protestors, strikers and other sources. Bomb disposal is another speciality within this group. 

In summary, all government employment must be considered to be “essential”. There needs to be a comparative evaluation of the degree of disruptiveness to the life of the employee that would be inherent in the many different types of jobs in government service and appropriate categorisation should be worked out on the lines suggested above. 

An overall organisational structure and corresponding rewards should be fashioned so as to match the combination of qualifications, experience, responsibilities, working hours, job-related risks and so on to help assign suitable positions in government service to the different categories. There must be a streamlined mechanism and simple procedures to solve differences between the state and its employees without allowing any wounds to fester out of control indefinitely, especially by Ministers who procrastinate because they do not possess the skills to deal with human resources problems. 

[The writer is President, CIMOGG (www.cimogg-srilanka.org) and can be reached via acvisva@gmail.com.]