Workers’ Obligations

Ceylon Today Editorial

Yesterday, Sri Lanka and the world celebrated ‘May Day,’ a day set aside to recognize workers’ rights. While workers’ rights are annually celebrated this way, there is however, no day set aside to celebrate workers’ obligations. Such rights are simply encapsulated by doing an honest job on every working day.

Whereas workers in the private sector generally subscribe to this ethos, as their future, more often than not is related to performance, there is a question mark as to whether such a discipline percolates down to the public sector?

The phrase ‘percolates down’ is used because the country’s largest employer is the private sector. Nonetheless, certain key sectors of the economy, beginning with ‘energy,’ are virtually a monopoly of the State.

It’s also so with regard to State revenue collection, led by Sri Lanka Customs (SLC), Inland Revenue Department (IRD) and to a lesser extent the Excise Department, that too being a monopoly of the State.

Therefore, two key pillars of the economy, ‘energy’ and ‘State revenue collection’, are prerogatives of the public sector. If there is a breakdown in one or both of these sectors, the economy suffers while there is no fallback option.

‘State revenue collection’ and ‘energy’ are virtual State monopolies.

Energy services are essentially led by the supply of electrical power, and petroleum products, predominated by oil.

Electrical power, more so its key services of transmission and distribution is a monopoly of the State, in the form of State owned Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and Lanka Electricity Company (Pvt.) Ltd. (LECO) being the distributors of such products.

Meanwhile, the storing, wholesaling and distribution of petroleum oil, a product needed for both electricity generation and to power automotives such as vehicles and trains, is dual operated by State owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and Lanka Indian Oil Corporation plc (LIOC), an Indian Government enterprise.

There, however, is no mention in LIOC’s website that it provides petroleum fuel to the CEB for electricity power generation.

Therefore, it may be assumed that the supply of petroleum fuels for power generation to the CEB (with LECO being only a distribution arm), is a monopoly of the CPC.

While the rights of a worker are enshrined in the Constitution, allowing him virtually unrestricted entitlements to seek employment in greener pastures, an example of which is the migration of CPC workers to the Middle-East when this sector was opened up more than 40 years ago in 1976, paradoxically during the closed economy era of Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike’s, there, however, is resistance from the workers themselves, to fully open up the energy sector, namely electricity distribution and petroleum oil storage and distribution to the private sector, for the public good.

Competition increases efficiency, while at the same time making such services more cost effective to the public.

Resistance to opening up is also found in regard to medical practice, another key area of public service. Whereas, it’s alright for our physicians to go overseas in search of better jobs, it’s however, not right for foreign physicians to come to Sri Lanka and establish a practice here, according to the Government Medical Officers’ Association, a powerful trade union (TU) of physicians.

Automation and computerization, to increase in efficiencies in State revenue collection, are also resisted by the IRD and SLC workers.

These are the contradictions governing workers in monopolies or near monopolies or TUs that are exerted on the economy, the public and the Government of Sri Lanka.

In dictatorships, where governments rule by the barrel of the gun, such as in the case of China, it’s easy to destroy workers’ and TU rights. But in democracies such as Sri Lanka, that is not possible.

In capitalist USA, there is no room for either State or private sector run monopolies or oligopolies. Therefore, workers and TUs are powerless to dictate terms to the government or to the public in the USA. In fact, privatization in the USA is practised to such an extreme, its defence services too, are taken out from the hands of the State.

What may be missing in democracies such as Sri Lanka are responsible TUs.

In the late 1960s, a visiting journalist from Sri Lanka was told by workers in Tokyo that they obtain their demands not by striking, but by working harder.

There may be some truth in this theory, because a few years later, Japan went on to become the world’s second largest economy, to be behind only to the USA. Recently it was overtaken by China, but still, its per capita GDP is four times bigger than that of China’s.

The USA’s per capita GDP was $ 56,000, Japan’s ($ 32,000), China ($ 8,000) and Sri Lanka ($ 4,000) in 2015, according to the internet.

The bullet or responsible TUs may be the options left for Sri Lanka to follow, if it aspires, in former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s words, to be the ‘Miracle of Asia.’