A thought-provoking masterpiece

Tuesday, 24 May 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Ravi Pieris

I am privileged and honoured to review a book written by my former boss and ‘guru,’ who is one of the key authorities on Industrial Relations in Sri Lanka. I was certainly privileged to be recruited and guided by him at the EFC, when he functioned as its director-general for a period of 10 years.

The book presents employee relations in Sri Lanka and draws upon his experience. The thrust appears to be to provide a picture of the realities of the industrial relations system prevailing in Sri Lanka. It is not meant to be a comprehensive treatise on Labour Law but focuses more on the practical aspects of people management in the background of a highly regulated labour law regime.

The book covers the more important issues that a practitioner, investor or an academic is concerned with and therefore tends to dwell more on practice and challenges faced in maintaining harmony and at times seeks to provoke thought of what has shaped employee relations in Sri Lanka, the employment practices which have evolved as a result of labour laws and practice: some concrete cases of how employers and workers or their representatives have reacted to situations and disputes; and what maybe the best approach to handling people in such manner as to evoke a response of co operation and harmony.

The term ‘employee relations’ has been used in this book to cover relations at the workplace, as well as in a wider sense as covering the whole spectrum of employer-worker relations at the industry and national levels. It is also meant to recognise that our labour laws protect not only non-executive staff as in some countries, but reach out to executives as well. We have seen disputes raised by Executive Chairmen and Chief Executives of Companies under the Industrial Disputes Act.

Chapter 2 deals with a historical backdrop as well as some demographic data which would be helpful to grasp the significance of the developments and the future challenges. The chapter traces the emergence of unions and the attitudes which developed among the social partners. It deals with the organisations which represent employers and workers and their own challenges in being relevant to the needs of their stakeholders.

Chapter 3 is devoted to the Labour Laws and chapter 5 to the management of employee relations. The chapters discuss some shortcomings purely with a view to a constructive approach to real needs, rather than mere legal coverage, which as we have seen, seldom produces meaningful results. The recent changes in policy of the government in giving a new focus to the Labour Ministry, Department and their functions are referred to.

Chapter 4 deals with the ILO and our membership in the organisation. The ratifications by Sri Lanka are referred to and special mention is made of the core conventions and the manner in which they have been implemented.

Chapter 6 is on the actors, and the different roles played by them: The policies of the government and how they have been translated into action is shown through some examples of intervention by it.

Chapter 7 discusses Collective Bargaining in Sri Lanka, which could be traced back to British times and is very informative regarding the subject matter. Amerasinghe has it will be recalled, written the history of the EEC which revealed much information which was unknown on this subject. It was interesting to see the attitude of Employers in the early years after Independence as reflected by the fact that in 1956 the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC) considered a proposal that members should form themselves into a consumer ring, the objective of which would be that the members would only trade with those who were members, as far as possible.

The author covers the political changes and how they impacted on employment and relations at the workplace. The attitudes of employers in Sri Lanka towards collective agreements have changed in the 1980s, driven largely by the EEC itself which was constantly reviewing best practice internationally in relation to wage fixation. He shows that the change on the side of unions has been slow due to pressures exerted on an industrial relations regime where multiple unions are vying for membership. He deals with relations within the EPZs with their proliferation. This Chapter provides information regarding various Collective Agreements which have changed relations at workplaces by setting standards and best practice.

Chapter 8 is devoted to three examples of intervention by the courts in industrial relations issues to show that the labour laws are not the only way in which intervention is seen in administering the employment relationship, but that the courts also remain a force to be reckoned with.

Chapter 9 is devoted to the plantation sector which having been in the public sector for almost two decades came back to the private sector in 1992. This chapter breaks new ground and is of immense value to academics and students.

Chapter 10 is devoted to trade unions and their recognition. The realisation has now dawned on those who pressed for reform that legislation which was introduced in 1999 making recognition of unions, was not the answer.  Amerasinghe argues that, recognition is more a question of developing relationships, and laws cannot achieve recognition but leads to more hostile behaviour.

Disputes and the mechanisms for their settlement are the subject matter of Chapter 11. The move by the EFC to popularise mediation and the dispute settlement clauses in collective agreements are contained in this chapter.

In Chapter 11 intends also to cover mechanisms which have brought employers and their employees closer and resulted in mutual benefits. Reference is made to dialogue at the workplace and measures which have been taken to resolve disputes through a process of negotiation and dialogue. Chapter 12 is devoted to the subject of dialogue and tripartism. These are tools of a democratic process and it is imperative that if there is to be balanced development emphasis should be placed on the need for the exchange of views and the sharing of the responsibility for making employee relations work for the benefit of all. There is reference to the initiative taken by employers and unions together to create a bipartite body for Dialogue & Conflict Resolution (ADCOR)

Chapter 13 is devoted to negotiations and he outlines the realities of the negotiating process and what one needs to expect in Sri Lanka to encounter when you negotiate. Chapter 14 deals with productivity and gain-sharing two subjects which are currently very topical. This development has taken root firmly and many employers are opposed to increases based on cost of living and other factors beyond their control.

The author brings in a discussion on HRM in Chapter 15 and this is to highlight the fact that good HR practices result in good employee relations. He shows how good HR practices revolve round respect for the individual and therefore provides a basis for developing good relationships which could lead to collective benefits.

Chapter 16, is a case book based on real life disputes spanning over 50 years from which there is much to learn. And the information in this case book is of the greatest value to HR practitioners who may know the theory but are often thrown into the deep end without understanding the culture of our workplaces.

Chapter 17 which is the final chapter looks at the future directions. It also deals with the manner in which organisations have developed their labour relations functions against the backdrop of a new management culture spurred on and driven by more scientific management and innovations created in establishing Human Resource Management processes.

The book is thought provoking and very instructive. It covers certain areas which have not been dealt with before and therefore is of great value.

(The writer is Director General, Employers’ Federation of Ceylon.)