Currently, hardly a day passes without demonstrations, picketing, work stoppages or any other kind of protests either by university students or by public sector employees. The protesters often block roads, disrupt transport or various other services, severely inconveniencing the people. Almost every day SMS news services alert the people on the disrupted main roads in Colombo due to protests, so that they can take alternative routes or cancel their programmes if they are travelling.
As we have said many times before, rights have to be won through struggles - they would not be offered on a platter by the authorities. We do not take issue with most of the demands made by the protesting students or employees and we too respect their right to protest or make demands. But one has certainly to be at issue with the way the protesters convey their message to the authorities and with the attitude of the protesters towards the ordinary public.
They take decisions paying scant regard to the rights and the interests of the people, sometimes compelling one to believe that these protesting students or employees are sadists.
For instance, during the recent nurses’ strike it is said that patients were left bleeding, women nearing labour were discharged from hospitals, medical files, keys and vital drugs and equipment were locked away or hidden. However, we never heard of anyone regretting, leave alone apologising.
Before and during the strike the concerned unions announced that the services at the children’s hospital, maternity hospitals and the cancer hospital would not be disrupted.
But one’s experience would vouch for many emergency cases that need skilled care in other hospitals as well on any day, while professionals trained at the expense of tax payers’ money heartlessly ignore them.
After the recent two train accidents at Pothuhera and Aluthgama the authorities took action against the relevant locomotive engine drivers. And the engine drivers hit back with a work-to-rule campaign, inconveniencing tens of thousands of people. It may be their right to protest, but the announcement by a railway trade union leader on the trade union action pointed to the attitude of many trade unionists towards the people.
He held the government alone responsible for the inconvenience that would be faced by the commuters due to their action.
Authorities would not care for any trade union action in the service sector unless the people suffered. Hence the more the people suffer, the more the trade union actions are deemed successful. The attitude of the trade unions is made up of this perception. However, there are signs of people losing patience towards these endless agitations by various groups.
Kidney patients in Anuradhapura on May 4 staged a sit-in-protest against the nurses’ strike and on May 9 a locomotive engine driver was assaulted at the Polgahawela railway station by the commuters enraged by the train delays. These are manifestations of a conflict between the rights of the protesting employees and those of the general public. Therefore it would be prudent for the trade unionists to find ways to strike a balance between the two.