In the not too distant past, Sri Lanka had in place social systems which provided basic economic security for its citizens. A state where government was responsible for the individual and social welfare of its citizens.
A strong trade union movement protected employees rights. They made hire and fire regulations which operated in more developed countries inoperable here. Fixed working hours and security of employment were a basic right. Health services were free and so was education.
But all of this changed with the unexpected suspension of the US PL-480 aid.
In the final days of the welfare state, availability of luxury goods were few and far between. People stood in queues to purchase essentials. But no one died of starvation. Despite the difficulties workers enjoyed security of employment. The nation enjoyed free health services and free education. Foreign travel was severely restricted. At the elections of 1977, the political parties purveying the welfare state model were castigated into the dusbins of history. The country opted for an open economy and a government which ended up waging war on, and crippling the trade union movement.
Today, forty-four years since the dismantling of the welfare state mechanisms, workers have lost security of employment. Last year, the Govenor of the Central Bank revealed nearly 60 percent of the total workforce comprised daily paid workers. Of this number 660,000 lost their source of income to the Covid-19 pandemic.
These workers received no compensation. A study by the United Federation of Labour showed around 250,000 minor staff in the leisure trade, also lost employment. They too received no compensation.
The Free Trade Zone & General Services Employees Union revealed a Tripatriate Agreement exists between TUs, the Employers Federation and the Ministry of Skills Development, Employment & Labour Relations dated 21 May 2020, which enables employers to retain jobs for employees where work was suspended due to Covid-19.
The TU charges, the agreement is being observed in the breach by several employers, with payment of only 50% of wages being paid to workers who reported for duty. In the mercantile sector large sections of workers receive the basic minimum wage of Rs.14,500/- per month.
Yet, a spot survey carried out in June/July 2020 showed a family of four (father, mother and two kids) require a minimum income of Rs 27,500/- per month to have 2 basic meals a day. This is without taking into consideration cost of travel, medical expenses, educational requirements etc.
Today nearly eight months later, the cost of living has risen beyond this level.
As if this were not bad enough, it is now reported that the price of a 12.5 kg canister of LP gas will be raised by between Rs. 700/- to Rs. 800/- per canister!
At a meeting between farmers and the agriculture department, media reported, farmers insisted that unless there was an upward revision of the floor price of paddy, they would not be in a position to cover costs
What this means, is a price hike in the cost of rice
With the price gas out of reach, are we returning to an era of open fires, the use of firewood and what was known as ‘paan polimas’ (era of queues) of old?
The present regime was voted into power protraying itself a people-friendly regime. Unfortunately government has not made efforts to implement collective decisions, of which it (government) itself was a part of, in relation to .payment of salaries of workers forced out of employment by the Covid-19, or to restore salary cuts to workers, nor to raise minimum wages in keeping with rising the cost of living.
For fear of job loss workers remain silent.
In today’s normal, the cost of living is sky-rocketting, while workers either lose employment, suffer wage cuts or wages remain stagnent with no relief insight. Yet, these problems are not unique to Sri Lanka. The approach to problem solving has differed from country to country. In some countries government only subsidises wages for hours that an employee is no longer working. This is the case in the UK, Denmark, France, Germany and Sweden. Whereas in Australia, Canada, Ireland and the US – the government has offered a wage subsidy for all employees.
Our government has attempted to provide a means to ease the burdan on its people, but it has not been practically applied country-wide. No self-respecting government can allow such a situation