Sri Lanka: Global union community demand respect for the labour rights of workers

published 28 August 2023 updated 20 September 2023

The Education International’s Asia-Pacific (EIAP) office has added the voice of educators in the region to the Global Unions Federations’ statement denouncing attempts to slash labour rights in the country.

The Global Unions Federations and affiliated trade union organisations, as well as supporting organisations, have joined the Sri Lankan trade union movement in categorically rejecting the “Single Employment Bill”, designed to slash the wages, conditions and trade union rights of Sri Lankan workers.

Clear breach of international law

The unionists condemn the bill which includes multiple provisions violating international law, including:

  • Removal of the 8 hour work day;
  • Enabling extended shifts, up to 16 hours a day, without overtime;
  • Removal of protection from unfair dismissal;
  • Drastic reduction in annual leave entitlements; and
  • Dismantling provisions that protect the right to unionise and to effective collective bargaining.

They also fully support the Sri Lankan union movement in demanding a halt to attempts to cut the social security savings of Sri Lankan workers, proposals to privatise public services, and the introduction of austerity measures designed to benefit the rich and foreign corporations at the expense of workers, under the guise of restructuring domestic debt.

Annihilation of progress made through ongoing social dialogue

“The Employment Bill, dubbed the ‘Slave labour bill’, by Sri Lankan unions, attempts to remove 13 existing labour laws, which have been developed through social dialogue over many years,” according to the statement signed by the global union federations.

At the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the parliament approved a domestic debt restructuring plan, which if implemented, will deplete the superannuation funds of workers.

The trade unions explain: “Superannuation funds represent a lifetime saving of workers and should not be used for anything other than themselves. The actual value of people's savings has already been diminished by inflation and the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee; therefore, if people were forced to bear the additional burden of a reduction in the interest rate paid on their pension funds, their savings would suffer significantly.”

Demands to the Sri Lankan government

Standing in solidarity with Sri Lankan trade unions, the Global Union Federation calls upon the Sri Lankan government to:

  1. Immediately halt the current labour law reform process;
  2. Ensure that all future labour law reforms respect International Labour Standards set by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and advance the right to decent work;
  3. Request technical assistance from the ILO to conduct an audit of any proposed law reforms ensuring the reforms are consistent with Sri Lanka’s obligation to the ILO labour conventions and that the laws promote progressive realization of economic social and cultural rights of all Sri Lankans;
  4. Reinstate the four trade unions that were unlawfully removed from the National Labour Advisory Council in June 2023;
  5. Reverse legislative and executive actions already taken that negatively affect the EPF/ETF (pension funds) provisions;
  6. Cease efforts to privatise public services, infrastructure, and entities;
  7. Work with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), unions and civil society to develop redistributive macroeconomic policies designed to advance economic rights, including through the restoration of a reasonable corporate tax rate, taxes on the digital economy, wealth taxes and the removal of harmful corporate subsidies; and
  8. Implement the recommendations of the UN Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights.

They further demand that the IMF, other International Financial Institutions and all external creditors:

  1. Recognise the role and responsibility of creditors in the current financial crisis, suspend interest payments and cancel “odious” debts incurred by corrupt politicians consistent with the recommendations of more than 150 prominent economists;
  2. Implement the recommendations of the UN Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights following the country visit to Sri Lanka, published in 2019;
  3. Implement the UNCTAD Principles on the Promotion of Sovereign Lending and Borrowing; and
  4. Cease pressuring the Sri Lankan government to adopt neoliberal policies that undermine the country’s human rights obligations.

EIAP regional director Anand Singh highlighted: “We know that more than 1 million jobs have been lost in Sri Lanka because of the pandemic and gross economic mismanagement. Real wages have declined by more than 50%. The government and the IMF have made this situation worse by increasing indirect taxes, removing subsidies for working people and promoting harmful privatisation, without a political mandate. As a result, more than half of all Sri Lankans have reduced their food intake. And half a million families have stopped using electricity.”

“We also remind public authorities that increasing funding in the education system and investing in teachers and education support personnel, will help the Sri Lankan society recover from COVID and build a sustainable future,” he said.

Education International, via its Asia-Pacific office, will continue to monitor the situation of trade union rights and support workers, especially in the education sector, in Sri Lanka.

The full Global Union Federations’ statement is available here.