Had one compared the enthusiasm on this year’s May Day shown by the two factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with that of the Cuban Communist Party which is famous for its mammoth rallies on International Workers’ Day every year, he may have seen that the former had outsmarted the latter this time.
But everybody knows that this enthusiasm of the SLFP leaders was not born out of the love for the toiling masses of the country. In fact it is nothing other than the manifestation of a power struggle between President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who are fighting for their political survival.
Even the workers supportive of these two factions were not concerned about their own rights and plights to be highlighted at the May Day processions and rallies organised by their respective factions in Galle and Kirulaponne. They too were highly obsessed and intoxicated with the rivalry between the two factions.
Many articles in the newspapers were about the hijacking of the International Workers’ Day by politicians from the working masses. Replying to these allegations widely levelled in the media, Labour Minister John Senevirathne said while addressing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP’s) main May Day rally in Galle, that the SLFP has a special right to commemorate this day as it was the SLFP that declared May Day a holiday in Sri Lanka,when it was in power.
If one rates the right of political parties to commemorate the International Workers’ Day considering their performance towards the workers, as the minister suggested by implication, he would realise that the two main parties and those parties that were in hand in glove with them in governing the country have no moral right what so ever to hold May Day rallies and demonstrations.
It is true that it was the government led by Prime Minister S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike who represented the SLFP in the ruling coalition, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna declared May Day a statutory holiday in the country. Also it was the same government that established the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) for the benefit of private sector employees. But it was during the same period that the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) was amended so that governments can ban trade union actions by declaring any service as an essential service.
Then, during another SLFP rule under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike the PSO which was commonly seen as a repressive piece of legislation was included in the Constitution in 1972 so that no future governments can amend it without the two thirds of parliamentary majority. It has been used by almost all governments thereafter to suppress trade union actions; the best case in point was the suppression of the 1980 July strike. During the end of her tenure Mrs. Bandaranaikes’s name was further tarnished in terms of repression by an incident where estate workers who demonstrated against the alienation of their estates in Talawakelle in 1976 were shot at and one worker named Sivan Letchumanan was killed.
Once, during President Chandrika Kumaratunge’s tenure, another regime under a coalition led by the SLFP, striking workers of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) were brought to their workplaces by force using Army personnel by Deputy Defence Minister Anurudda Rathwatte who was also the Power and Energy Minister then. This type of action could be expected only under a military rule.
Mahinda Rajapaksa who was another SLFP leader promised to introduce a “Workers’ Charter” in order to strengthen the rights of the workers in the country.He was the President in the country twice with two thirds of Parliamentary power during his second term, but the Workers’ Charter never saw the light of the day. One reason for Rajapaksa’s defeat was his repressive attitude towards the working masses which was manifested through several shooting incidents. Two major incidents that led to Rajapaksa’s downfall were the incidents that took place in Katunayake and Chilaw. Roshen Chanaka a worker attached to the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) was shot dead when he, along with other workers of the FTZ was demonstrating against the government’s move to convert the EPF into a pension scheme. In the other incident a fisherman was shot dead in Chilaw when a group of fishermen was demonstrating demanding the price reduction of fuel used in their boats. Minister Seneviratne would appreciate that the declaration of May Day as a holiday would not offset this repressive history of the SLFP. On the other hand the United National Party (UNP) too has a history that could easily counter balance the SLFP’s past, in respect of repression of workers of the country. Two incidents would suffice to prove this point.
Hundreds of trade unions declared a “National Day of Protest” on June 5, 1980 to protest against the spiraling cost of living and demanding a Rs. 300 monthly salary increment and a Rs. 5 allowance per each rising unit in the Cost of Living Index. When the members of several trade unions were demonstrating in Colombo Fort on that day, thugs mobilised by a UNP leader from Kalutara District invaded the place and attacked workers, killing a trade unionist, D. Somapala.
Then the trade unions declared a general strike and trade unions of several sectors struck work in July in the same year. Before the strike began the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali threatened the strikers to be sent to “kanatte.” More than 40,000 (some say it was 80,000) workers who struck work were expelled from work for good that resulted in several workers committing suicide.
Leaders of the SLFP, one of the parties that took the decision to launch the general strike pledged to reinstate the sacked workers once they come to power, but that promise was never kept in full although twenty two years had passed since the first SLFP led government came to power after that “July Strike.”
The moral right of a political party to commemorate the International Workers Day should stem from its attitude and dedication in protecting the rights of the workers in the past. Hijacking that day in order to deceive the very workers repeatedly and using it for political purposes is clearly immoral.