Protests spark over ETC again

Thursday, 23 July 2020 01:09 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • Trade unions wear black arm bands in second protest this month 
  • Insist Govt. efforts to suspend agreement with India insufficient 
  • Demand ETC development be handed over to SLPA; threatens strike action

By Nuwan Senarathna 

A trade union protest was held yesterday on the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port for the second time this month, as workers continued to demand that the Government ensure terminal development is not given to India. 

Members of several trade unions tied black arm bands, held posters and shouted slogans against what they described as lacklustre efforts by the Government to hand over the long delayed development of the ETC to the Sri Lanka Port Development Authority (SLPA). 

In the first round of protests earlier this month, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a high level committee to look into issues surrounding both ETC and State-run Jaya terminal, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa promised unions to discuss this issue at Cabinet level, that Sri Lanka could potentially desist from a tripartite agreement with Japan and India signed last year. But the unions insists these efforts are insufficient. 

“In the first round of protests we requested that the Government allow SLPA workers to offload three gantry cranes. This has now been done but there is no further support to install these at the terminal and for the SLPA to commence operations of the ETC.” 

“This is a national problem and should be treated as such. We will never allow a foreign country to take control of the ETC,” JVP Trade Union activist and Progressive Workers Association for Commercial Industry and Services (PWACIS) Secretary Shamal Sumanarathna told the Daily FT. 

The unions also invited Ven. Elle Gunawansa to visit the Port and appealed for his support to being public attention to the issue. Sumanarathna also said the unions would consider launching a strike if the Government does not respond favourably.        

In May 2019 the former Government entered into a tri-partite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Japan and India to build the ETC. Under that agreement Japan was to provide a loan of $500 million and India was to do the construction. 

The agreement was signed during the tenure of former Ports Minister Sagala Ratnayaka. However, former Ports Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who held the portfolio before Ratnayaka, and former President Maithripala Sirisena had earlier promised the SLPA trade unions that the ECT will be built and operated by the SLPA. 

The unions contend that if the ETC is given to a foreign company then the SLPA will not have a deep water terminal capable of berthing large ships, and will eventually lose out to the other two privately operated terminals. 

Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) is currently operated by a Chinese company and the South Asia Gateway Terminal is run by conglomerate John Keells Holdings. JCT, which is the oldest of the three terminals currently under operation, is not deep enough to compete with the other two terminals. Shipping experts have long warned that the much delayed ECT was urgently needed to keep the Colombo Port competitive and continue its hub status in South Asia. But efforts to make it operational since 2015 have largely failed to take off. 

According to the SLPA, the MoU signed under the former Government states that the SLPA retains 100% ownership of ETC. The Terminal Operations Company (TOC), which will be responsible for all operations within the terminal, will be jointly owned by Sri Lanka, Japan, and India. 

Sri Lanka will maintain a 51% stake in the company, while Japan and India will hold minority stakes of 34% and 15% respectively. Development of the ECT was to be financed by Japan through a 40-year soft loan of between $ 500 –  $ 800 million. 

The loan will be at a 0.1% interest rate with a grace period of 10 years. Other experts had also pushed for the ECT to be developed as a public-private partnership ventures. Tenders that were called in early 2015 also led to a dead end with all bidders eventually disqualified by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) that was presided over by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.      

Pic by Ruwan Walpola