In times of economic crisis, Sri Lanka government faces pushback from unions

For more than a year now, the Sri Lankan government has been facing multiple challenges from the financial crisis to the Covid crisis

Jul 28, 2021
Sri Lanka falg (File)

For more than a year now, the Sri Lankan government has been facing multiple challenges from the financial crisis to the Covid crisis. However, the strong union culture in the island nation has complicated the government response to a great extent. 

Recently, when the government has been struggling to contain the Covid-19 cases due to the spread of the Delta variant, a government nurses’ union in the country went on an hour-long strike today. 

The Government Nursing Officers’ Association Saman Rathnapriya, a union of government nurses, accused the government of not fulfilling their demands. Earlier this year, they had been on strike for days, demanding good facilities from the government. 

For three weeks now, school teachers and principals are on strike, alleging anomalies in their salaries and over a controversial bill, the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) bill, that seeks to privatize education. Despite repeated attempts by the government to persuade teachers to resume online classes, the teachers’ unions remain unmoved. 

Education is one of the sectors worst hit by the disruption caused by the global pandemic. Across the world, countries are opting for online classes to mitigate some losses. The ultimate victim of the ongoing tussle between the governments and teachers will be students. 

The matter was complicated further when the government on 11 July arrested three union leaders and detained several protesting teachers, claiming they violated Covid guidelines. In response, eleven unions issued a joint statement condemning the government’s actions. 

While authorities are yet to find a solution, another union of university teachers, the Federation of University Teachers Association, on Wednesday announced joining the strike. They announced withdrawing from all online teaching activities. 

Earlier, in February this year, after months-long protests by leftist trade unions, the Sri Lankan government had canceled a tripartite agreement, jointly signed by India and Japan with Sri Lanka in 2019, for the development of the East Container Terminal of Colombo port. 

The termination soured its relations with India and Japan, two of its major development partners. 
The present Rajapaksas government is known to have a good rapport with trade unions. However, in times of crisis, when the government is needed to introduce tough reforms, it has been facing fierce pushback from the same unions. 

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