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 of 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.