With the social revolution in 1956, the then Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike—activating the ‘Pancha Maha Balawegaya’ comprising the Sangha, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru—declared May Day as a holiday and provided many benefits for millions of workers and their families. There were short term and long term benefits, the most important being the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) which unfortunately during the past decade or so has been plundered and abused by some political leaders and their business lackeys.
After the assassination of Mr. Bandaranaike on September 26, 1959, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party played an active role for the workers and their trade unions and memorable rallies were held with party leaders and workers marching to the inspiring words of “Sadukin Pelenawun Den Ithin Negetiyawu, Antheema Satanta Sarasiyawu...” While the LSSP and the CP gave leadership to the workers mainly in the public sector the veteran trade union hero Bala Tampoe through the Ceylon Mercantile Union obtained a multitude of benefits for the workers in the private sector.
However with the emergence of the J.R. Jayawardena era in 1977 when Sri Lanka swallowed wholesale the globalised crony capitalists market economic system, trade unions were gradually marginalised. The most devastating blow came in July 1980 when thousands of strikers were sacked. Years later some settlement was reached to give them compensation but the prophetic Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, a social justice activist, described that deal as a compromise where justice ended and charity began. During the past few decades we have seen a backstage political coup where May Day had been hijacked from the working class and taken over by party political leaders for a big circus or a show of force.
This year the situation appears to be worse. With the Sri Lanka Freedom Party split down the middle, the ruling party and its rival fractions, the Joint Opposition, are claiming they would hire busses and bring lakhs of people to Gatambe in Kandy and to the Galle Face Green in Colombo. The ruling United National Party (UNP) which now gives a prominent role to its trade union wing the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya is also planning a massive rally to be held at Campbell Park in Borella. How wonderful it would have been if the National Unity government announced something like a Rs. 10,000 bonus for all workers to mark May Day.
It is tragic that even on May Day the vital role played by workers—ranging from the plantation community to the young hi-tech executives in the private sector—is undermined and damaged with liquor flowing freely and drunken participants blocking roads or causing other inconveniences to the people.
We urge some deep reflection for a change of attitude or approach where the workers’ vital role is recognised by both public and private sector institutions. Happy and well-paid workers will work with sincerity and commitment helping the public and private institutions to be more productive and profitable. Trade union leaders also need to change their attitude. As we have often said, rights are linked to responsibilities. To the extent we fail to carry out our responsibilities, to that extent we forfeit our rights. This needs to be stressed because since January 8, 2015, we have seen far too many instances of the abuse of freedom. In recent months specially an extreme left wing students’ union appears to be provoking thousands of university students to hold demonstrations on the SAITM issue, causing inconvenience to hundreds of thousands of people at peak times on highways. Even last Monday’s short lived strike by Ceylon Petroleum Corporation workers was not a fight for their rights but a challenge to economic policy issues which are the responsibility of an elected government. As for the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), the less said about it the better.
We hope political and trade union leaders in consultation with workers, will be able to revive the spirit of May Day and the workers will get many more short or long term benefits such as the EPF.