Women led unions demand consultations on labour law reforms

Tuesday, 7 November 2023 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Four women led trade unions in Sri Lanka, namely, Dabindu Collective, Textile Garment and Clothing Workers’ Union,  Stand Up Movement and Commercial and Industrial Workers’ Union last week highlighted the deficit of women’s representation in the labour law reform dialogue.

They demanded a new and inclusive consultation process ahead of the possible adoption of the proposed labour reforms. The unions contend that the existing consultation process excludes women labour leaders and representatives from different unions despite making decisions for majorly women-dominated industries and sectors.  

Just months before the labour laws were brought before the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC), Sri Lanka’s Labour Ministry removed several representatives of independent unions from the Council, including Swasthika Arulingam, the first woman to ever represent a labour union in the Government-appointed body. As a result, no female labour leader was a part of the official consultation process. This is of particular concern given that several of the proposed labour reforms will disproportionately affect women workers. 

“While the new labour laws are being marketed as ways to increase women’s participation in the labour force, the Minister is in a hurry to relax night-time work restrictions,” said Ashila Dandeniya, leader of Stand Up Movement Sri Lanka. “We know that it isn’t night-time work restrictions that keep women out of the labour force; it is in fact unpaid care work such as taking care of children, the elderly and the sick, that prevent a majority of women from accessing paid work. Women need extended maternity and paternity leave, as well as employer- and state-funded child care,” she said adding, “If the drafters of this law actually allowed female unionists to take part in the decision-making process, they would easily understand the actual needs of women workers.” 

The Commercial and Industrial Workers’ Union (CIWU) President Swasthika Arulingam commented on the irony of making new laws for women workers while denying them representation in the NLAC. “Policy-making seems to have become a man’s business. Historically, women have been excluded from the NLAC, but even after one woman representative was included this time in the NLAC membership, it is strange that Minister Manusha Nanayakkara has removed the only woman representation before going ahead with new labour law reforms for women workers.”  

 “The new labour laws, drafted without consulting women-led unions and female workers would have a devastating effect on the wages of our workers,” added Chamila Thushari of the Dabindu Collective. “Garment sector workers, a majority of them women, will be forced to work longer hours for lesser wages. Workers need to be paid overtime allowances to be able to earn a living wage. However, the compressed work weeks proposed in the reforms will stretch the working day to 12, 16 or even 18 hours, with no additional compensation for overtime. This is of grave concern as the new laws will force workers to more work for minimum pay.” 

“The proposed new labour laws are extremely hostile to trade unions and their right to the freedom of association,” added the Textile Garment and Clothing Workers’ Union (TGCWU) Chief Organiser Lalitha Dedduwakumara. “Workers in the Free Trade Zones face retaliation when they form or join unions. Women workers face added risks of verbal and sexual harassment. The new laws would make unionising even more difficult. In the new reforms, the minimum number for a trade union registration is proposed to increase from 7 to 100. The new labour laws also present a threat to a trade union’s right to protest, making it possible to put a worker in jail for simply speaking up against workplace injustices. We consider the barriers to unionising as a violation of women’s right to freedom of association,”  she said.

Women led union leaders are calling for new consultation and have reached out to allies throughout the Sri Lankan and global labour movements. The union leaders also announced dispatching a letter to the ILO in support of a complaint filed more than a year ago about Sri Lanka’s violation of the ILO Convention on tripartite consultation.  

“Part-time work, flexible work and manpower labour systems (which involves temporary labour contracts) are touted as ways to help women workers flexibility in their work arrangements, as per these new reforms,” Dandeniya highlighted. “But such non-standard labour contracts are devoid of the benefits and stability of permanent, full-time work. The new laws are aimed at dismantling job protections and benefits by portraying part-time work and multiple jobs as desirable. This is especially problematic because it reinforces the idea that women are primarily responsible for unpaid domestic work,” she said. 

All the women leaders reiterated that women workers would not receive equal rights and true freedom of association until women-led unions join the official conversation about labour laws in Sri Lanka.