Strike out!

With a strike called by certain regional CTB employees yesterday and a strike in elements of the public health sector looming overhead, a heavily repeated debate of banning strikes in the essential services sector has sprung up again. One would hope that at least this time something tangible is done about it. The strike action of the CTB is owing to the salary anomalies and arrears in salary increases promised under the 2005 budgetary proposals.

During her rule as Prime Minsister ostrike.jpgf Brtiain, the ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher passed a law banning all strikes in the essential services sector. I.e. strikes in specified public services like health, railways etc., were made illegal. Although the move will be highly controversial and violently opposed, I firmly believe that adopting a similar policy with regard to the essential services in Sri Lanka is very much in need. The slow down in economic activity during periods of strike, the financial loss experienced by firms, and the sheer inconvenience to the general public due to constant strike action by these services are matters requiring serious attention when debating this ban.

However, many issues in support of rejecting such a ban exist in plenty. Many third world governments have proven to be very lethargic and casual when paying attention to issues like salary anomalies in the public sector, unless its workers go on strike. (or if an election is near!). Therefore the case for allowing strikes, to give the unions a more powerful voice, is very strong. Workers in these sectors see no other way out. However, what we must remember is that in most cases where strike action is taken, it has not been taken as a move of last resort, as is stipulated in much of the economics of industrial relations. The moment the workers have grievances, the effort to approach managerial level and iron out those problems may take a back seat. The immediate solution seems to be to stage a strike. That has proved to be the case on numerous occasions over the years in the Sri Lankan public sector labour force.

If a total ban on strikes in essential services does not materialise due to political opposition, we must look to establishing mechanisms to streamline the bargaining process, with more efficient and effective mediation and arbitration methods. The concept of productivity linked pay hikes in the public sector must also be seriously explored. A recent example of this concept was shown by Tony Blair a few years ago in the context of a firefighters’ trade union action. Besides carrying out reasonable discussions with the unions with regard to their salary grievances, Tony Blair and other labour representatives insisted on productivity linked pay hikes. The union was required to show satisfactory productivity and efficiency improvements which will in turn entitle them to pay hikes, over and above the inflation/index-linked wage increases. This is a model we need to actively pursue, especially with the severe inefficiencies and absurdly low productivity levels existing in the public sector. Meanwhile let us hope that the president as well as labour ministry officials will take a much stricter stance towards strikers in the essential services sector in the future, albeit at the risk of being politically unpopular.

5 thoughts on “Strike out!

  1. Or alternativly we invest properly in our public services, and pay our public servants sufficient salaries so they do not need to strike – Of course we would need to tax the private sector far more vigorously and maybe even tax our “entrepreners” – Now wouldn’t that go down a treat……

  2. I agree that much investment in our public services is required, however, I would rather prefer that investment coming in the form of better working conditions and facilities as well as systems for productivity improvement, as opposed to paying higher wages to public servants. As I mentioned, the government can sometimes be very slow at responding to salary greivances, hence the reason for the public servants resorting to strikes to meet their demands.
    As for taxing the private sector more vigorously – do you mean increasing corporate tax or increasing the degree of vigilancy with regard to collecting tax revenue? If you are referring to the former, I have to disagree with the economic feasibility of such a move, as it would severely hamper economic activity. We are well aware that the thrust of our economy is, to a great extent, the private sector. Increasing tax rates would only act as a dis-incentive to private business, thus adversely affecting our GDP and employment.

  3. If we had less public servants working more efficiently then correspondingly their salaries should rise. They would need to work harder and be properly accountable to the public.

    So as you say “it would severely hamper economic activity.” If the private sector was targetted, how else are the government expected to get the funds.

    What happens at present where it go’s cup in hand to the world bank for even more loans while the private sector is awash with funds both local and foreign. And yet we criticise the government for being so dependant on the world bank and the debts. It should be noted that we basicly do what the world bank asks of us in terms of our employment laws and working practices since we remain indebted to them. The books don’t balance unless we tax the lucrative sectors as stated before. And if we aren’t willing to tax our sacred entrepreners then we should simply “shut up and put up” with poor to no public services from our goverment and hope our private sector employers supply all our requirements as if………

  4. as for your first part, I agree wholeheatedly. If they show productivity and efficiency improvements, they ought to be compensated appropriately.

    As for the second part, it is true that the private sector does bring in a large sum into the government coffers, but we must be careful not to tax the pvt sector beyond the danger mark. We do not want to create a dis-incentive to business and investment.
    As for the World Bank, sadly yes…we are eternally with a begging bowl at their doorstep…but us and so many other LDC’s. One must realise that we are severely dependent on their funds, and will be for many decades to come. As long as they give us funding, they WILL link it to their advice and instruction. Most of the time they do know their stuff. It is not as if they impose economic programmes on us without much research and consultation. It just seems that way to us as we refuse to accept such drastic and transformatory economic policies.

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