Private Sector Pension Bill debacle: Time to reintroduce White Papers?

Thursday, 2 June 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Asian Tribune: Irrespective of whether the Private Sector Pension Bill is good or bad, its aborted passage, temporary according to the Government, has demonstrated a flaw in the way important legislation progresses through Parliament.

In this case it did not progress at all as it met an embarrassing obstacle in the streets of Katunayake, where the Free Trade Zone employees protested, and the Government had to first say the bill excluded the FTZ employees and then temporarily withdraw it for further consultation.

Although some would try to show this as a defeat for the Government, President Rajapaksa and his Government should take it as a welcome development. It is now possible for a broader consultation to occur and for the Government to allay any fears that some may have that this bill is detrimental to workers.

An enlightened Opposition Parliamentarian, unlike some of his colleagues, economist Dr. Harsha de Silva has mentioned that the UNP is not opposed to granting a pension to the private sector, but that they are opposed to the way the Government was trying to do it.

Dr. de Silva said: “We wish to make it clear to the government, as the main Opposition Party in Parliament that we are not at all against moves to grant a pension to the private sector, but the way the Government is trying to do it.” Dr. De Silva rightly stated that there is a lot of confusion amongst the public about the actual contents of the Bill.

The Government must admit there has been a lot of confusion as it has been one of those “on,” “off” bills, with the Minister in charge Gamini Lokuge stating from time to time that it will be presented on a given day, and then saying it won’t, and then again saying it will be presented with some amendments and finally saying FTZ employees will be exempt, and then ultimately withdrawing the Bill. One is still not clear whether it is suspended or temporally suspended.

In any event, the shaky passage has made the JVP look important when they had already been consigned to the irrelevant basket in Sri Lankan politics. They managed to raise trade union action to heights that the Government probably did not anticipate, giving them a renewed profile and a new lease of life. They were given an opportunity on a platter, by no less than a powerful Government. An unnecessary detraction for the Government.

A lesson to be learnt by the Government hopefully would be to market the idea that a pension, in addition to the EPF and ETF accumulation, is good for a worker, and why it is good, and allay any fears that a pension is not going to replace their accumulated EPF and ETF.

It would not be a bad idea for the Government to include a clause in the bill that the EPF as well as the ETF payments upon retirement are sacrosanct, and that the administration of those funds as well as the pension funds will be subject to scrutiny by a multi-party Parliamentary committee.

Another lesson that might be learned, not just by the Government, but even by the Opposition, considering that it is the alternative government in waiting, is that any important legislation that is contemplated should first be presented as a White Paper so that political parties and the public can make their views known before the legislation is framed.

Considering that the Government has the numbers to get any legislation passed in Parliament, it would not lose anything by inviting a broader discussion and taking in all good suggestions that are made through such a consultative process. Such a process should not and need not be open-ended and they should operate within reasonable timeframes, so that unnecessary delays can be avoided.

The discussion on a Private Sector Pensions Bill could also lead to discussions on salary anomalies within the State sector and also anomalies with the private sector, where one sector pays income tax and the other does not, although all citizens enjoy the same services and privileges, however dwindled they are today, that are funded with tax revenue. It requires someone brave to ask the question why.