by Namini Wijedasa
A powerful international federation of trade unions has in a petition to be considered by the US government delivered a scathing account of labour practices in Sri Lanka, alleging that worker rights in the country have deteriorated in recent years.
The American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) filed the petition before the United States Trade Representative (USTR) in 2008 asking to remove Sri Lanka from the list of countries deemed eligible under America’s General System of Preferences. Last year, the federation submitted an updated petition which the USTR has now accepted.
The 30-page petition contains allegations that Sri Lanka is violating a vast array of minimum International Labour Organisation standards to which the country has subscribed. It says that the labour law, although amended from time to time, still fails to adhere to the internationally recognized worker rights.
The petition comes at a time when Sri Lanka has just lost the European Union’s GSP Plus benefits and is desperately wooing the international community for investment.
“The government has also failed to effectively enforce its laws, let alone the international minimum set of labour rights,” the petition claims. “An inadequate labour inspectorate, together with a hostile Board of Investment (BOI), which is responsible for the administration of the Export Processing Zones (EPZs), contributes to ongoing labour violations in this sector.”
“Furthermore,” it states, “the nation’s judiciary has, in several recent cases, enjoined otherwise legal strikes in the public sector in response to complaints from third party litigants with no legally cognizable stake in the labour dispute.”
The AFL-CIO maintains that Sri Lanka’s labour law contains several provisions that do not comply with minimum rights established by ILO. Here are some of the clauses cited in the petition.
Trade Union Ordinance
Under Article 15 of the Trade Union Ordinance, a union is immediately deemed an unlawful association if the registrar decides to withdraw or cancel its registration. A union may appeal to the courts but it may take months or years before it regains its legal status upon a successful appeal.
Article 20 of the Trade Union Ordinance denies the right of free association to five broad classifications of public sector employees: judicial officers, members of the armed forces, police officers, prison officers, and members of any corps established under the Agriculture Corp Ordinance.
Article 21 of the Trade Union Ordinance states that a public sector union cannot represent workers from more than one department or specified service of government. Thus, it is impossible for public sector workers to form a federation or confederation of public sector workers, or a local, federation or confederation that represents workers in both the public and private sectors.
Industrial Disputes Act
Under Article 4 of the Industrial Disputes Act, the minister of labour may compel arbitration of “minor” disputes, regardless of the will of the parties. The determination of what constitutes a minor dispute is completely within the discretion of the minister.
Under Article 32, no employer shall refuse to bargain with a trade union which represents “not less than 40 per cent of the workmen on whose behalf such trade union seeks to bargain.” In other words, the act deprives a union with less than 40% of the workforce from bargaining at all.
The right to strike is governed by a single sentence of the Industrial Dispute Act. Emergency decrees invoking the war prohibited strikes in essential services, as very broadly defined by the government. The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has held principles of two ILO Conventions on the right to strike to be inadmissible in Sri Lanka. It has also held that no enabling laws exist in order to provide for the guaranteeing of principles of these two ILO Conventions.
The maximum penalty for unfair labour practices under the Industrial Disputes Act, even if implemented, is still too low to provide a sufficient deterrence.
Unfair labour practices such as anti-union discrimination are tried before the magistrate’s court but only the ministry of labour can make a complaint to the to the magistrate’s court.
The ministry has not brought a single case before the magistrate’s court since the law was introduced.
The ordinance sets forth the maximum hours of work and of overtime for women and children employed in all factories. The law makes no mention of hours of work and overtime for adult male workers.
Article 68 provides that women and children over the age of 16 may be assigned overtime. The employer can, and often does, require factory workers to work up to 108 hours a month, and often well beyond this legal maximum-often without proper payment. Excessive overtime is having a serious impact on the health of Sri Lankan workers.
Supreme Court action on strikes
The petition takes up a host of other issues including Supreme Court injunctions against strikes. It mentions a 2006 strike over a wage dispute between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and several unions representing SLPA workers.
The Supreme Court issued an interim order on July 21 enjoining all union action at the port until July 25. The court also ordered the police and, if necessary, the military to ensure compliance with the interim order. On July 25, 2006, the Supreme Court issued an order extending the prohibition on trade union action until November 25, 2006.
The petition refers, too, to an injunction issued by the Supreme Court against a boycott of paper-marking by teachers’ unions in 2007.
Trade union leaders threatened
The petition alleges that trade unionists are threatened in Sri Lanka. In February 2007, three men, including a trade unionist, were allegedly abducted in Colombo. This provoked protests by several trade unions, which rallied in front of the Colombo Fort railway station.
The next day, the government said the men were in custody, being interrogated on suspicion of collaboration with the LTTE. The unions called on the government to follow established legal procedures if they have credible evidence of collaboration with the LTTE, not abduct persons clandestinely.
The union activists who participated in the Fort Railway Station protest were then accused of being LTTE agents. The unionists received several death threats. Four trade unionists in all-two from a railway union and two from a teachers union-were been detained on suspicion of being agents of the LTTE.
Export Processing Zones
The petition also refers to alleged labour violations outside the Export Processing Zones but cites specific incidents at two companies. A section on labour violations in the EPZs states that internationally recognized worker rights continue to be “routinely violated in the EPZs of Sri Lanka”.
“In many cases, union officers and members are suspended, demoted or terminated, and many have been the victims of violent assault,” the petition claims. “In other cases, employers have promoted non-union employees councils as a way to avoid or to weaken unions. Employers frequently fail to pay into the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), a statutory social security benefit. And, employers routinely fail to pay workers the wages owed when they downsize or close factories”
The petition points out that the zones are under the purview of the BOI which has its own industrial relations department under a director of industrial relations. It is very difficult for anyone, even a labour inspector, to enter an EPZ. Anyone who seeks to enter the zone must present his or her national identity card at the gate and state the purpose of his visit to BOI security. Security will then call the factory to determine whether entry to the zone may be granted. If allowed, then a pass is issued and the vehicle may enter. All entrants must pay a fee of 60 rupees. ~ (courtesy: Lakbima News)