Protest against Private Sector Pension Scheme
The Government Proposed Private Sector Employees' Pension Scheme made the country face protests of gigantic proportion. Though the bill has been withdrawn at present, it should be noted that it created condition for the government to face opposition from various quarters. This makes it necessary to have a clear understanding of the bill.
ILO's Social Security Convention makes old age benefits scheme important. In the context of an increase of employees in the private sector, ILO stressed the need for a pension scheme for the private sector employees. As a result, some countries created private sector employees' pension funds allocating a portion from the state finances. In this background, in the 1980s, the United National Party government proposed to convert the Employees' Provident Fund into a pension scheme. But it was opposed by the left parties, independent trade unions and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which was the then opposition party. The government dropped the idea as a result. It is the same scheme that the present government proposes to introduce as a private sector pension benefits fund bill in the parliament.
The bill qualifies a private sector employee who has an uninterrupted service of ten years in any private trade, for pension.
There are 4 million employees registered under the EPF scheme. This number includes three hundred thousand plantation workers. There are approximately 60 thousand private sector employees from the Free Trade Zone, who are members of the EPF.
Though the private sector employees' pension scheme is presented as one benefitting the workers, one is inclined to ask why it has been resisted by all. To know the answer to this question it would be necessary to know the core content of the scheme.
- Under the Employees' Provident Fund (EPF) Act, a worker is a member as long as there is credit balance to his account.
- This credit balance, converted into the new pension scheme, will also be used for financial and administrative expenses.
- Each member will be given a special identity card.
- At the initial stage, only those below 55 years of age will be eligible to become members. Thereafter, the scheme will be extended to those over 55 years of age.
- Al though a worker retires at 55 years of age, he / she will be paid the pension after such worker reaches 60 years of age.
- If the recipient dies, his wife will not be paid the pension. But his children below 18 years of age will be paid.
- It is also stated the benefits under the new pension scheme are available, only if there is a 60 per cent credit balance in the account.
- The levy towards this scheme will be at 2 per cent from the employee's wage, at 10 per cent from the gratuity fund and at 2per cent from the EPF, and at 2per cent from the employer.
- A majority of the Free Trade Zone workers, main opposition parties and leftist parties are up in arms against this pension scheme on the ground that it will benefit the next of kins (or the heirs) only up to a certain period, and therefore it is needless. However, Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC) and other major Trade Unions, who are in alliance with the government, representing the plantation workers who will be most affected if this pension scheme is implemented, were surprisingly silent. However, the Workers' Solidarity Union, Agricultural and Plantation the Workers' Union (also representing the plantation workers) put forward their views. But the plantation workers themselves did not demonstrate opposition to the pension scheme, because the wage increase (which was under negotiation) over determined the issue and a lack of understanding on the pros and cons of it.
Anyway, many opposition parties demonstrated their opposition and the Katunayake Free Tread Zone workers launched their democratic struggle against the scheme. The government, feeling the danger of the struggle spreading to other parts of the country, tried to suppress the Katunayake FTZ workers' struggle through police. Hundreds of workers were injured and 15 of the protesting workers with serious injuries were admitted to hospital. It is noteworthy that the police tear gassed the workers and shot at the protesters. This was followed by the arrest of an officer of Negombo Police by the CID.
A protesting worker, Roshan Chanaka, who was seriously wounded in the police shooting, succumbed to his injuries on 2.6.2011 at the hospital. This became a threat to the government, while on the other hand, drew the international attention. The main opposition parties, UNP and JVP, Calling upon the people to unite irrespective of race, religious and / or party difference "to end the government's repressive measures", mobilized people and protested.
The Katunayake incident was followed by the resignation of the Inspector General of Police Mahinda Balasuriya who handed over his resignation to the President on 01.06.2011. The government denied it, and the Western Province Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police Gamini Navaratna, was transferred. Further, a 5 member commission was appointed by the President to probe the Katunayake incident and report.
Following the death of the worker, many trade unions, opposition parties, civil organizations (NGOs) and particularly, the Free Trade Zone workers ventured into street demonstrations. This became a serious threat to the Sri Lankan government, and talks were afloat that family rule and military activities were nearing an end.
The government took action to cripple this through military intervention, and on the other hand, as a measure to satisfy the masses, it was announced the bill was withdrawn, on the 4th June 2011. Dead worker Chanaka's funeral took place with the army around. Army had been moved into the Free Trade Zone and every employee was interrogated. It is also said that the Criminal Investigation Officers conducted house to house inquiries of the FTZ workers. With the opposition protests continuing, on 11.06.2011 President of the country met, Roshan Chanaka mother and, paying her Rs.One Million, brought an end to struggle against police atrocity and dictatorial attitudes. It should be noted that the military intervention blunted the FTZ workers consciousness.
At present the government claims that there were extremist forces behind these incidents, with a view to divert the people's attention. Though the bill has been withdrawn it is said that a new pension scheme bill for the private sector employees- pledged Mahinda Chinthanaya will be brought up in the parliament. It is sad that the people are unable to voice for their rights in the face of army intervention.
Free Trade Zone Workers' Struggle - 30 May 2011
As was communicated to you before, we had reported to you the hitherto unprecedented struggle in the history of Free Trade Zone. The struggle did not end there. Workers who pledged to fight until the withdrawal of the proposed Private Sector Pension Act continued to demonstrate.
On last 28th the discussions held between the Minister of Labour, who came to the Free Trade Zone the other day, and 200 workers that were summoned to him also ended without an agreement between the two parties.
The police took away two workers who had been working in the factory saying that they tore the President's cut-out to pieces on 27th May 2011.
In this backdrop, around 5000 workers in factories located in the 2nd phase of the Free Trade Zone again staged a demonstration in protest of the Act. On that occasion, the police and a large number of thugs brutally attacked the protesters with cudgels and stones and spread tear gas. Then they fired shots in the air and then at workers. They even caused a lot of damage to several factories. Even several pregnant women were subjected to police-thug attacks.
The police stormed into factories and attacked workers engaged in their work using iron bars. One of the workers who got shot badly, who was named Roshen Shanaka (aged 21) employed at DSL, was admitted to Ragama Hospital and he died on the 30th. Currently over 700 injured persons are receiving treatment at hospitals in Ragama, Seeduwa and Negombo. The majority of the hospitalized persons are women, several of whom are in a critical condition.
While the Policemen and the thugs had been attacking the workers who had been inside factories without letting them escape, the workers shouted for help. The residents in the neighborhood came and rescued them by breaching the walls and cutting the barbed wire fences.
While this was happening in the Phase 2 of the Free Trade Zone, about 10,000 workers who had been at work in Phase 1 staged a demonstration at the Main Gate to the Free Trade Zone. Later the personnel from the Katunayake Police Station were removed from the scene and the Army and the Riot Control Unit were deployed. Subsequently, the Free Trade Zone was closed for the two days 31st May and 1st June.
The workers from factories all over the country were enraged by the death of their follow worker and have come out of their factories and are engaged in protests. The government, panicked following his death, obtained a court order and imposed an order to be carried out by the Army to ensure that at the funeral, the only speech that could be delivered is the vote of thanks on behalf of the family and the body can only be taken to the church before its burial at the cemetery. The last rites will take place on Saturday the 3rd May and the Free Trade Zone workers will attend it.
As a women's organization, we demand the government and relevant authorities to ensure:
1. that medical treatment and other necessary facilities are provided to the workers wounded by the police and thug attacks;
2. their job security and pay them salary for the period till they report for duty and suitable compensation for the harm caused to them;
3. that they will not be subjected to any kind of victimization
4. that no action will be taken against the residents from the area who helped workers to escape when the police and thugs attacked the workers, having trapped and cornered them inside factories.
5. that no pay and cuts or reduction from leaves are effected on workers who left for their villages due to the Army's announcement that the Free Trade Zone was closed indefinitely and workers are to go to their villages.
6. that justice is accorded to the family of the worker who died.
It was learnt unofficially that the government would withdraw the Proposed Act today (03.06.2011). We are annexing herewith several photographs from the struggle.
The latest development in the Katunayaka FRZ incident.
Ten workers namely: Mangala Sampath (labourer), Rohitha (transformer winder), Buddika Atapathu (machine operator), Danushka Sanjeewa (Labourer), Anesh Imalka (transformer winder), Thamali Iresha (helper), Nisshanka Wanigasekara (supervisor), Jayatissa (driver), Lasantha Perera (cutter), and Lalinda Herath (helper) have filed a fundamental rights petition in the supreme court against the police where, among other things, they claim that they had decided to organize a peaceful non political protest against the pension scheme bill being passed in the parliament as they believed that the scheme was detrimental. They also claim that 600 police personal armed with firearms and iron rods attacked and chased them.
Claiming that due to the police attack, which is a violation of their fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution, and 39 protesters were injured and one 22 year old worker Roshan Chanaka succumbed to his injuries caused by the police attack, they seek compensation for the damages they suffered due to the police activities.