Health professionals in Sri Lanka took to the streets of Colombo this week to protest a recent presidential decree that public health and electricity provision are essential services, effectively banning all workers in those sectors from striking.
The Federation of Health Professionals (FHP) staged its protest in front of President Gotabaya Rajapakse’s office. The protest comes after three months of island-wide strike action by the Government Nursing Officers’ Association (GNOA), which demanded a resolution of salary anomalies, among other issues.
The president’s late-Friday decree, or gazette, came on the heels of protests on February 7 and 8.
Following a meeting with the health minister, the FHP said it would suspend further trade union action for two weeks until its demands were met. The minister committed to issuing a cabinet paper on February 21 to resolve salary issues.
GNOA suspended further actions after the issuing of the gazette.
Unions in Sri Lanka are urging the government to follow through with its promise to ratify a global treaty to end gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work by March 2022.
The Sri Lanka Trade Union Movement for the Ratification of ILO C190 in Sri Lanka, comprised of 17 trade union leaders from the public and private sectors, held a press conference in recent days to call out the government for deliberately delaying the ratification process.
International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190) is the first international treaty that addresses violence and harassment at work. The ILO adopted it in 2019 during its annual meeting in Geneva.
“There is no point in raising your hand in Geneva, only to lower your hand in Sri Lanka,” Saman Rathnapriya, chairman of the Government Nursing Officers Association said at the press conference.
“Create a proper working environment in the country. A conducive working environment does not exist in this country.”
Union leaders noted that Sri Lanka’s Labor Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva had promised ratification by March 2022 during a March 2021 Women’s Day event organized by the National Union of Seafarers Sri Lanka (NUSS), and in numerous other public venues.
The Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union (FTZ & GSEU) has become the first union to successfully bargain a collective agreement with a factory in Sri Lanka’s largest free trade zone.
The collective agreement was signed between the union and the factory, Next Manufacturing Limited, on October 22, 2021, less than a year after a trade union branch office of the FTZ & GSEU was set up at the factory.
Speaking on the achievement, Joint Secretary of the Union Anton Marcus, says factory employees joined the union in December 2020, when they launched a strike to demand payment of late bonuses. “We eventually signed a two-year collective agreement with the company with the support of trade unions and civil society organizations in the United Kingdom.”
The agreement is a first for the Katunayake Investment Promotion Zone. Prior to this, only one other factory chain–the Esquel Group, with more than 350 garment factories–had entered into a collective agreement in Sri Lanka. Both agreements were negotiated and signed with the FTZ & GSEU Union.
“Under this collective agreement, we have agreed to discuss not only the terms and conditions that affect employees but also all privileges and demands submitted by the unions from time to time, and training and development programs that workers can enroll in,” says Marcus. “They also agreed to deduct salary dues and credit the union’s account, and to allow a two-hour duty leave per month to hold committee meetings within factory premises and a half-day duty leave to hold general meetings. The union has agreed to provide two noticeboards, a cabinet and a telephone for the two branch buildings, and the first members are allowed to assemble in the workplace if required, either after work or before the commencement of work.”
This landmark victory carries an important message to all those who work in the garment industry. Collective bargaining power and worker rights can be won even in the garment sector.
The FTZ & GSEU are partners of the Solidarity Center.
A survey of garment workers in Sri Lanka, conducted in partnership with Solidarity Center and IndustriALL, found employer opposition and harassment has limited their ability to form unions and address workplace rights violations such as increased workloads and work hours, layoffs and temporary termination.
Solidarity Center’s video on gender-based violence at work is now available in Sinhala and Tamil.
The two-minute video explains the forms of gender-based violence at work, which include bullying, verbal abuse and stalking, systemic gendered imbalance between employers and workers that enables employers to get away with unsafe working conditions and other worker abuses.
Workers, employers and government officials currently are debating a proposed International Labor Organization (ILO) convention (regulation) that would address violence and harassment at work, and the video ends with a call to action tojoin the campaign.
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