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2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Sri Lanka

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 8 June 2011
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Sri Lanka, 8 June 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4ea661e3c.html [accessed 17 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 20,200,000
Capital: Colombo
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Sri Lanka has ratified all the ILO core conventions, but does little to implement them. Trade union rights continue to be restricted, especially in the export processing zones.

TRADE UNION RIGHTS IN LAW

Despite initial guarantees, trade union rights are limited by excessive restrictions. The right to form and join unions is recognised, however a number of workers are excluded or enjoy limited freedom of association, including agricultural workers. Furthermore, public service unions are not allowed to form federations or engage in collective bargaining. While the right to bargain collectively is guaranteed for other trade unions, they must represent over 40% of the workers at a given workplace in order to be recognised. The right to strike is seriously circumscribed. The long list of services defined as "essential" was removed in 2006 and replaced by a broad unrestricted definition. The regulations allow the President to ban any organisation s/he considers to be impeding, obstructing or delaying the production and delivery of any service "which is of public utility or is essential for national security or for the preservation of public order or the life of the community and includes any department of the government or branch thereof".

TRADE UNION RIGHTS IN PRACTICE AND VIOLATIONS IN 2010

Background: Strengthened by the military victory in 2009 over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), President Rajapaksa and his party won the presidential and parliamentary elections in January and April. The main opposition candidate, the former army chief Sarath Fonseka, was arrested two weeks following the presidential election, then condemned to 30 months in jail on corruption charges.

Sri Lanka has been placed under review for abuse of workers rights under the U.S. Generalised System of Preferences. In August 2010, the European Union reacted to human rights violations by partially withdrawing trade benefits previously granted under its generalised system of preferences.

In September, the parliament passed an amendment to the Constitution removing limits to government control over bodies such as the police, the judiciary and the National Human Rights Commission.

Public sector trade union federations tolerated: Although the law prohibits federations of public sector trade unions, there are a few such federations operating openly such as the Public Service National Trade Union Federation (PSNTUF) and the Ceylon Trade Union Federation (CTUF). These federations do not engage in collective bargaining, however, as they are not legally recognised as trade unions.

EPZs – A long tradition of anti-unionism: Export processing zones (EPZs) are managed by the Board of Investment (BOI), which sets wages and working conditions. In many cases, union members or officials are suspended, demoted or dismissed. In addition, new workers, often women, are warned not to join unions. Union activists not employed by one of the firms operating in an EPZ are not allowed to access the zone unless their entry is expressly authorised by the employer. This ban is one of the main barriers to organising in the EPZs.

Derisory fines: The maximum fine for employers found guilty of anti-union discrimination is 20,000 rupees (around USD 174), which is far too little to be dissuasive.

Poor enforcement of legislation on union recognition: The recognition of unions for collective bargaining purposes is dogged by excessive delays. Employers try to delay the holding of union elections for as long as possible and use this time to identify, victimise and, very often, fire the union activists concerned. As a result, workers generally refrain from voting, for fear of being identified, and the union fails to secure the number of votes required for it to be recognised. Employers go as far as to change their staffing figures to ensure the 40% representation target (deemed excessive by the ILO) is even harder to reach.

Where an employer refuses to recognise a union for collective bargaining purposes, the union can complain to the Commissioner General of Labour, who organises a referendum at the workplace. There is generally a very long wait, however, before such a referendum is actually held.

Poor rights enforcement in export processing zones: Labour inspection is clearly inadequate in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs), as government inspectors are not allowed to carry out unannounced visits to EPZ factories. In addition, when complaints are received by the competent government body, employers rarely turn up to the hearings, and, when they do so, they often flout the rulings with impunity. The government has proved incapable of enforcing these rulings. This was the case for the decisions by the General Labour Commissioner regarding New Design Manufacturing Ltd. and Ceyenergy Electronics (Pvt) Ltd.

Employees' Councils: Employees' Councils are promoted by the Board of Investment (BIO) as a substitute for trade unions in the export processing zones (EPZs). Employees' councils are, however, structures funded by and functioning under the aegis of the employer and can influence workers' choices much more easily than a union (where the workers elect their leaders and can act independently as the organisation is financed by the dues paid by its members). In some cases, management refuses to recognise an emerging trade union and will "negotiate" directly with the Employees' Council as if it were the workers' legitimate representative body. In other cases, it will offer employee council members certain advantages if they do not join a union and threaten them if they do.

EPZ employers have so far recognised 134 Employees' Committees and only 10 trade unions.

Unions denied access to Magistrates' Courts: There are many cases of anti-union discrimination. As with other unfair labour practices, such cases are heard by the Magistrates' Court, but only the Commissioner General of Labour can file a complaint with it. Trade unions can try to obtain a summons from a higher court, but this is a long and costly procedure. In the absence of a maximum deadline for bringing cases before the Magistrates' Court as of the moment a union reports a violation, the legislation on unfair labour practices serves little real purpose. The Commissioner General of Labour has only filed two cases since 1999.

Summit Industries sacks trade unionist: Srimathi, head of the National Free Trade Union (NFTU) at the Summit Industries (Pvt) Limited textile factory in Lellopitiya (Ratnapura district), was suspended on 12 January, then dismissed on 21 June after presenting wage demands. Summit Industries dismissed the trade unionist on the pretext of disciplinary grounds. The NFTU members were called by the company one by one and were pressed to leave the union, whilst other workers received threats to stop them from joining it. The union filed a complaint with the Commissioner General of Labour.

Bratex workers intimidated by advisor to the president: In early 2010, the women's undergarment factory Bratex (Pvt) Limited, based in the Katunayake export processing zone, was at the centre of a discussion over pay between the management and representatives of the Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU) and the Employees' Committee. On 16 and 17 February, the factory was visited by Siripala Amasaringha, accompanied by armed personnel, who introduced himself as an advisor to the president on labour matters. He pressed the workers not to engage in trade union activities. The FTZ&GSEU also reported that some of its members were intimidated by management executives.

Trade union representative assaulted: The Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU) intervened in early 2010 to help resolve a dispute between the management and workers at the Courtaulds Clothing (Pvt) Ltd garment factory in Katuwellegama. On 12 March, when a FTZ&GSEU representative for the Katunayake EPZ, Asela Dharmapriya, met with workers to collect trade union membership forms, he was assaulted by a group of thugs who threatened to kill him if he came back. The union informed the factory's management about the incident, threatened to call strike action, and was able to distribute membership forms to the workers. The FTZ&GSEU, however, believes that the management at Courtaulds, which supplies Marks & Spencer, was behind the assault.

Wheel Work Ltd. still fiercely anti-union: The management at the Wheel Work (Pvt) Ltd factory in the Biyagama EPZ formed an Employees' Committee after a branch of the Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU) was set up there. Since the union was formed at the end of 2008, its members have faced relentless victimisation (frequent changes in working hours, demotion to unskilled jobs, etc.). On 6 May 2009, the assistant secretary and a member of the union were suspended, supposedly for negligence. The union member was reinstated the following day after resigning from the union. On 18 March 2010, the company dismissed the assistant secretary, Mr. Karunathilaka. The management refuses to engage in any form of dialogue with the FTZ&GSEU.

President of Employees' Committee beaten up: Irregularities in the payment of wages in 2009 and 2010 led workers at the Everest Industries bottle cooler factory in the Katunayake EPZ to contact the industrial relations department of the Board of Investment (BOI). The BOI advised them to form an Employees' Committee. At the end of the working day on 23 March, after 10 pm, when the president of the Employees' Committee was being taken home by the company transport, the vehicle took a different route and left him in an isolated spot. A few minutes later he was attacked by a group of men. He had to be hospitalised for several days.

The workers demonstrated in front of the police station to demand that the aggressors be brought to justice. Everest Industries responded with repression: 90 employees were suspended; 70 of them were later reinstated, some after having been forced to sign a humiliating letter recognising their wrongdoings. Of the 20 other workers suspended, 19 were dismissed. The workers had contacted the Progress Union with a view to forming a genuine trade union at the company, but the project was brought to a halt by the dispute with the management.

Discrimination in the nomination of delegates to the International Labour Conference: The Trade Union Confederation, which brings together nine trade unions representing workers in the public and private sectors, denounced that it was discriminated against in the nomination of delegates to the International Labour Conference in June 2010. It underlined that the Labour Ministry lacks impartiality in its selection of delegates and gives more weight to political considerations than to the "most representative union" criterion.

Anti-union discrimination at the National Paper Factory: On 23 October, G. L. Jonshon, secretary of the Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU) at the National Paper Factory in Valaichenai, lost his job after refusing to transfer to Colombo. His transfer was supposedly a disciplinary sanction, but according to the FTZ&GSEU he had not infringed any disciplinary rules. The union filed a complaint with the Commissioner General of Labour who, following an inquiry, recommended that G. L. Jonshon be reinstated to his post at the Valaichenai factory.

Nurses intimidated following stoppage: The Government Nursing Officers Association (GNOA) called a three-hour stoppage on 25 October following the Labour Ministry's failure to respond to their demands. The GNOA took every step necessary to ensure that the emergency services would continue to operate during the stoppage. Nonetheless, on 26 October, the director general of health services ordered all the hospital directors to draw up a list of the nurses that had taken part in the union action and force them to set out the reasons behind their acts, deeming they had committed an offence and that disciplinary action could be taken against them. On 22 November, the GNOA filed a complaint with the ILO denouncing the intimidation of workers exercising the right to strike.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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