Since 1956 when socialist Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike declared May Day or workers’ day as a public holiday, the occasion was deeply significant not only because of the huge colourful processions but also life-long benefits like the Employee’s Provident Fund (EPF), vibrant and powerful trade unions and other facilities.
Millions of workers were brought out of virtual slavery and made like co-partners with the employers in the production process for the common good of all and the country.
Mr. Bandaranaike was swept into power by what was then described and admired as the “Pancha Maha Balawegaya” – comprising the Sanga, Weda, Guru, Govi and Kamkaru. Today, almost six decades after the Bandaranaike revolution, at least three of the five groups are no longer a balawegaya, but have been made virtually bankrupt, with millions of workers being the worst affected.
Struggling for so many years to survive amid a cost of living that has soared beyond the Moon and appears to be going to Mars, most workers will wake up today after a nightmare over their electricity bills, which the Rajapaksa regime has decided to raise by more than 60% from April 20. A joint trade union organisation has appealed to President Mahinda Rajapaksa to give a May Day gift to the people by withdrawing the unprecedented increase in electricity rates and to review the situation by finding and punishing the racketeers who have plunged the Ceylon Electricity Board into a black-hole of debt. The unions have warned that if the price hikes are not withdrawn they will be forced to launch a general strike. The main opposition UNP and other opposition parties also have said the blackout blow to the people through the huge increase in electricity rates will be the main theme of their May Day rallies and they will also take tough follow-up action.
On this May Day – which for the workers, the farmers and the teachers is more like a ‘may day, may day’ distress signal of international airlines, we also remember some 1.5 million Sri Lankans who are struggling overseas to earn a living for their families and also to keep the country’s economy afloat. According to Central Bank figures these workers, who are mainly house maids, officially contribute as much as six billion US dollars annually to our foreign exchange reserves – by far the largest contribution by anyone or any sector. If not for this contribution from their blood, sweat and tears, the regular cases of torture and last year’s execution of Rizana Nafeek, the country’s economy would have collapsed and we would not have had extra international ports or airports, super-highways and mega-development projects, not to mention the super-luxury Lamborghinis or the rocket–like 1000cc motorcycles.
We need to be grateful and give a May Day gift to these overseas workers by providing more facilities and protection to them.