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SRI LANKA: A Life Lost in Protest Against Pension Bill

Amantha Perera

KATUNAYAKE, Sri Lanka, Jun 10 2011 (IPS) - Even before 22-year-old Sri Lankan worker Roshen Chanaka was pronounced dead at the Colombo North Hospital on Jun. 1, a large contingent of military personnel had moved in to secure the building. And to the small undertaker’s premises to which his body was later brought, the soldiers followed.

The funeral. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

The funeral. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

And it continued till Chanaka, a worker from an industrial park, was laid to rest three days later, giving the funeral the appearance of a military drill. The heavy military presence was a message the government was not going to let the funeral become a vehicle for further demonstrations.

On May 30, Chanaka had joined a protest against a proposed private sector pension scheme at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ), about 30 km north of the capital Colombo, where he worked. But then police used excessive force and live bullets to quell the protest, fatally wounding Chanaka. More than 250 others, including over a dozen police officers, were injured.

On the day of his funeral, hours before the planned procession in the afternoon, the military removed Chanaka’s body from his father’s house and brought it to a small church nearby. The villagers protested, but the body was kept at the church for over five hours.

As the military laid out a heavy dragnet, armed soldiers stood beside the entrance and lined the short path the funeral procession took. Only relatives were allowed to remain inside the church. Everyone else, thousands of them, had to walk single file, pay their respects and move out.

“It was as if the government wanted to make sure it had control of the entire funeral,” said one mourner who did not wish to be identified.

With such diligent attention to the security detail, the government made sure that the funeral did not get out of hand, and the workers’ anger was not further inflamed.

The protests that Chanaka had joined were the first such public venting of displeasure under the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has ridden on a wave of popularity after ending a two-and-a-half-decade-old war in May 2009.

Rajapaksa moved quickly to withdraw the proposed bill, as the workers’ protests grew. The government also removed the police from the FTZ and handed over security to the military, which also withdrew from the zone ten days later.

For the protestors and union leaders, it was a bitter victory. “The workers know that they are safe for the time being,” Anton Marcus, who heads the Free Trade Zone Workers’ Union (FTZWU), told IPS. “Their main fear was that with this proposed scheme, the gratuity and trust fund payments they get on retirement or on leaving a job would be lost,” he said. The FTZWU has over 16,000 members from within and outside the trade zones.

The union leader, however, admitted that workers were still nervous about what to expect next, given the high-handed police action that cost a life, and the foreboding military presence right through the funeral.

The government has also not totally withdrawn the proposed bill, but merely suspended it, and not at the cabinet level but at a meeting of the central committee of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the largest partner in the ruling People’s Alliance Government.

The suspension of the bill was announced the same day as the violent protests in the FTZ. The government stated: “The proposed private pension scheme will be discussed with the trade unions, political parties and at the government’s parliamentary group meeting.”

Marcus told IPS that unions agreed in principle on a pension scheme for private sector employees. What they protested was the government’s failure to include in the proposed bill any input from unions or workers’ representatives.

“This was a rush job, the bill was just pushed through, there was no dialogue at all,” the union leader said. He told IPS that any new proposal should be finalised after consultations with representatives of employees. A major grouse the employees have with the suspended bill was that there was no government contribution, a unanimous demand of the workers.

Political parties supporting the workers have also expressed the same sentiments: any new bill should be a consultative process. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe observed that the government had erred by not taking on his recommendation for a consultative process for the suspended bill.

Tilvin Silva, general secretary of the People’s Liberation Front that has a large trade union base, said the party would support any proposed bill as long as workers’ rights were guaranteed.

Economists feel that if the government adopts high-handed tactics to dampen workers’ protests, it could lead to greater chaos. “This government cannot bulldoze the workers,” Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, the head of the Point Pedro Development Institute, told IPS.

Any assault on FTZ workers also risks international fallout. “The violent crackdown on FTZ workers would negatively impact on the ongoing review of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) tariff concession given by the United States,” Sarvananthan said.

Last year, Sri Lanka lost GSP facilities worth 100 million dollars a year to the European Union over what the Union said was the country’s failure to adhere to human rights standards. Though garment exports have rebounded from the EU action, Sarvananthan warned that similar action by the U.S. could be difficult to absorb.

While the Katunayake FTZ is the largest, Sri Lanka has 12 such zones where 265 companies are based and employ well above 100,000 workers, the bulk of them women. FTZ-based companies that enjoy tax holidays and other incentives accounted for eight percent of the country’s eight-billion-dollar exports in 2010.

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