No May Day for workers of Sri Lanka

Updated - April 28, 2018 07:22 pm IST

Published - April 28, 2018 07:20 pm IST

The Sri Lankan Cabinet’s decision to postpone May Day events to May 7, to avoid any overlap with the celebrations around the Buddhist festival of Vesak, has understandably provoked trade unions in the island. Nobody appears to have confronted the Maha Sangha — an influential body of monks — on its request to President Maithripala Sirisena, perhaps knowing well the political clout of the Buddhist clergy. The Colombo Municipal Council refused permission to hold May Day rallies in public parks on May 1, making it harder for dissidents to go ahead with their events.

However, at least 14 trade unions have decided to defy the government’s order and hold processions on the day that marks historic struggles and victories of the working class across the world.

Given his own leftist leanings in his student days, Mr. Sirisena would know well that by taking such a decision, he would surely antagonise independent trade unions that, despite their modest membership, feel no pressure to succumb to the whims of political parties. But that was not all.

In a historic decision, the Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya or the Sri Lanka Independent Workers’ Union, which was affiliated with Mr. Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) for about 60 years, broke away from the party earlier this week, and has decided to function independently. With some 90,000 members from public enterprises, the union has grown to become the largest in the country, after the once-strong trade union in the plantation sector got divided over the years. And Mr. Sirisena has lost the union.

Noting that the Maha Sangha “has a lot of power”, the union’s general secretary Leslie Devendra said, at times, trade unions had to “make adjustments” in such cultural contexts and that there needed to be “some give and take”.

He also accused the President and his government of taking the decision unilaterally. In 2016, President Sirisena appointed Mr. Devendra the Presidential Director General for trade union activities. “Despite that, I was not consulted in this matter,” he told The Hindu , days after he resigned from the post.

In protest, his union has also decided to take out its rally on May 1. “We aligned with the SLFP because it used to be a left-of-centre party, and stood for nationalisation, prevention of privatisation and worker-friendly policies. Now, in these three years in government with the [centre-right] United National Party (UNP), the party has totally forgotten workers’ interests and rights,” Mr. Devendra said. The union was not joining any other group, he said, alluding to a new party backed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

May Day was first declared a holiday in Sri Lanka in 1956 for the island’s state, banking and mercantile sectors. Senior leftists and trade unionists recall at least two attempts by past governments to postpone May Day events, in the 1980s and 1990s, but unions defied orders to that effect.

Not on the same page

All trade unions in Sri Lanka, as in any other country, do not hold the same view. Some of them are nationalist, xenophobic or ambivalent on the question of secularism. All the same, many committed union activists have, for decades, been challenging the Sri Lankan state, ensuring small but crucial victories along the way.

In alienating them, President Sirisena may have virtually lost a core constituency. “We are 90,000 workers but with our families, we are 3 lakh votes,” Mr. Devendra said.

Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo

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