Tact is not a trait of the members of the SLPP-UNP government. Their pugnacity knows no bounds. Lessons that the popular uprising of 2022 offered have gone unlearned, and the ruling party politicians seem to believe attack is the best form of defense. They go on the offensive at the drop of a hat. State Minister Sanath Nishantha has caused quite a stir by issuing not-so-veiled threats to the opponents of the government. Not to be outdone, Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera has taken on a trade union collective, which is opposing the power sector reforms prescribed by the IMF.
The government has spread itself too thin over diverse fronts; it has had to do many things simultaneously to meet the IMF conditions, the fulfilment of which is a prerequisite for the unlocking of the next tranche of the extended fund facility, raise funds for essential expenditure and relief measures, ink debt restructuring agreements with external creditors and arrest the rapid decrease of its approval rating in an election year. The government finds itself in an unenviable position, doing all the running it can to keep in the same place. The success of its strategy to overcome economic challenges and recover lost ground on the political front to improve its electoral chances hinges on its ability to ensure political stability, revive the economy and live up to the people’s expectations. This task requires a great deal of tact, and confrontation is to be avoided. But the government has chosen to be feisty in handling sensitive issues that have the potential to plunge the country into chaos again, and even put paid to the ongoing economic revival efforts. How it is dealing with trade unions is a case in point.
Most trade unions in Sri Lanka are affiliated to political parties. They are driven by political agendas of their leaders rather than a genuine desire to further the interests of the workers they represent. Given to populism, they consider making demands and winning them on behalf of their members their sole purpose of being, and they pay lip service to the wellbeing of the institutions that pay their salaries. Hence labour disputes abound. This has been one of the main reasons why many state-owned enterprises have become inefficient and a huge drain on the state coffers so much so that the government is under pressure from the IMF, etc., to restructure/divest them. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has been the bugbear of the IMF, which insists on cost reflective tariff structures to lessen the financial burden on the state coffers.
The CEB used to bleed billions from the Treasury due to huge overheads, unpaid electricity bills, and the absence of a proper long-term generation plan. But has reportedly pulled itself out of the red by increasing power tariffs severalfold; torrential rains the country has been experiencing during the recent months have led to an increase in the cheap hydro-power generation. But the government is still under pressure from the IMF to restructure the CEB. The CEB trade unions are offering stiff resistance to the planned power sector reforms, which they claim will lead to the division of the CEB into separate units to be sold to private companies. They have been staging protests during the past several weeks much to the consternation of Minister Wijesekera, who apparently thought the government would be able to railroad the CEB workers and unions into doing its bidding. But the trade unions have demonstrated that they are made of sterner stuff. Minister Wijesekera has launched what may be called a propaganda onslaught against the CEB workers and their trade unions.
He has made public via X (formerly Twitter) information about loans the CEB employees have drawn; he has revealed that two thirds of the interest on these loans are borne by the CEB. He is trying to turn public opinion against the CEB workers in a bid to facilitate the power sector reforms by making the CEB out to be an institution that pampers its workers at the expense of the public. Having caused dozens of CEB workers to be suspended for taking part in recent protests, Minister Wijesekera has targeted Ranjan Jayalal, the Convener of the United CEB Trade Union Alliance. Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday (23), he called upon Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene to summon Jayalal before the House Privileges Committee for having claimed that the parliament had defaulted on electricity bills. He said there was no truth whatsoever in Jayala’s claim, which was intended to bring the parliament into disrepute. The government’s wisdom of increasing the monthly DAT (Disturbance, Availability and Transport) allowance for government doctors by Rs. 35,000 to Rs. 70,000 stands questioned.
The powerful GMOA (Government Medical Officers’ Association) may have pushed the government against the wall by threatening a strike. The state health sector is already in a mess and the government may not have wanted another problem to contend with. But the offer of Rs. 35,000 for doctors prompted other categories of health workers to demand a pay hike. On Tuesday, the government announced that the DAT allowance increase could not be paid for the current month because the Treasury had not made funds available for that purpose. A circular that the Health Ministry issued to that effect provoked the GMOA into threatening an indefinite strike. Then, the government made another U-turn, and withdrew the circular, and the doctors called off the planned strike, which was to commence on Wednesday (24) countrywide. Now, the non-physician health workers will go all out to win their demand. They are also demanding a DAT allowance proportionate to the one given to the doctors.
The government may have been happy to see the GMOA clashing with other health sector trade unions over the enhanced DAT allowance, but the doctors alone will not be able to run the state health institution in case of a continuous strike by other health workers. This is the last thing a sensible government wants in an election year. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe administration is already drawing heavy flak for the procurement rackets in the Health Ministry and a chronic shortage of medicinal drugs and equipment in the state-run hospitals. Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who has had a rapport with trade unionists, has said it is counterproductive for a government to fight labor unions. They have to be engaged and managed instead of being confronted, he has said in his speech at a recent trade union event. He has not named names but his advice is obviously intended for the consumption of the government ministers who have locked horns with trade unions. The collective strength of trade unions is not something any government can afford to ignore, especially in an election year.