Amid an apparently weakening labour movement — that leaders attribute to growing affiliation to parliamentary politics and a neoliberal state — Sri Lanka’s trade unions say there is more reason now to continue the struggle.

Rather busy preparing for May Day, trade unionists on Wednesday were in meetings, giving final revisions to their resolutions and getting things in order for the rallies. With over five decades of involvement in the labour movement, Bala Tampoe, one of the most active trade union leaders and General Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU), says successive governments have neglected the working class. “Political parties don’t see workers as voters. They are not interested in the working class. They are unable to see workers as people putting in their labour in a capitalist system,” says Mr. Tampoe, who will turn 92 this month.

As someone at the forefront of the massive hartal (strike) in 1953, which paralysed the entire country, he is concerned about many trade unions being ‘trapped in parliamentary politics.’

Ties with India

Trade unionists like him, whether while observing May Day rallies here or following developments in workers’ struggle in the region, remain keen India watchers, for the Left in Sri Lanka earlier had close ties with Indian counterparts.

Most of the Left parties in Sri Lanka are now aligned with the ruling coalition that President Mahinda Rajapaksa leads. Leaders like Mr. Tampoe observe that the real challenge is to mobilise workers outside the sphere of parliamentary politics, which is ‘evidently controlled by the capitalist class.’

Linus Jayatilleke, president of the United Workers Federation, says with ‘growing exploitation’ of workers in all sectors, there is a greater need for them to appreciate one another’s concerns and raise them collectively.

Menaha Kandasamy, General Secretary, Ceylon Workers Red Flag Union says women working in the plantation sector are “made to work much longer than the stipulated 8 hours; we have to start the struggle all over again.”

“Trade unions trapped in parliamentary politics”