To get themselves out of economic stagnation and crisis, governments across Asia have been trying to push through anti-worker legislation that takes away crucial protections for workers won through struggles. They often do so by undemocratic means and against popular will.
As the economic and political crisis continues to deepen in Sri Lanka, the government has proposed a new Employment Act that will overhaul 13 existing labour laws. This means the extension of working hours, the removal of unfair dismissal protection, and the dismantling of the rights to unionise and collective bargaining. The reform will further degrade workers’ dire conditions, already much worsened by the pandemic.
We spoke with Anton Marcus, the Joint Secretary of the Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union in Sri Lanka, who has been organising worker resistance against labour law reforms. We discussed what is happening on the ground, what the labour law reforms will mean to workers, and what kind of worker resistance is needed.
Asian Labour Review (ALR): Can you tell us about yourself and your trade union?
Anton Marcus (AM): Before we became union activists, we were political activists. We were told that the trade unions don’t do anything. But we wanted to learn more about unions. After graduation, I worked at a factory as a motor mechanic. I was dismissed from the factory because I tried to organise a union with other workers. That is how I became a trade unionist in 1975. We were working with unions in the private sector that mainly organised white-collar workers. Later, we tried to organise industrial workers and established our own independent union.
Our union was mainly focused on organising workers in the export-oriented apparel sector. After 1978, the Sri Lankan government introduced a free trade policy and started the free trade zones populated by apparel factories. Those workers were internal migrant workers, and the majority of them were female. They don’t have any idea about unions. So we started organising these workers. It took 22 years for us to organise the first union in the free trade zone. We (the Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union) are now the biggest union in the apparel sector in Sri Lanka’s free trade zones.
ALR: Sri Lanka has been engulfed in a deep economic and political crisis, precipitating protests by a range of social groups over the past year. Can you tell us about what’s happening?
AM: Workers have been affected very severely by the COVID-19 pandemic because the export sector is dependent on the global supply chain. It has also immensely affected the urban middle class. That is why young people mobilised to demand the President to go and system change. Although rural people did not participate in the campaign, they fully supported this struggle led by the young people. This took the form of a popular uprising, resulting in the former President fleeing the country. However, I don’t think the new President, although constitutionally elected, has a popular mandate.
ALR: Can you tell us about the role of unions, including your union, in relation to the protests?
AM: Because of the crisis, many struggles were happening: the farmers were struggling, the fishermen were struggling, the lawyers were struggling, and trade unions were struggling. But the struggles are not united. We think there is a need to have a broad social movement.
On the last May Day in 2022, we had our demonstration. More than 1,000 workers from the free trade zone marched towards the place where young people were protesting. We were met very cordially by the protesters. They asked us to make a speech. We made a speech, and we extended our solidarity. But we also invited them for a dialogue to see how to unify those diverse struggles into one.
ALR: I want to ask about the current labour law reform in Sri Lanka. Across Asia, we see massive attacks on workers and unions. This sometimes takes the form of direct repression, such as arresting and harassing union activists; or, it takes the form of anti-worker legislation that takes away labour protection, or a combination of both. Can you tell us what has been like in Sri Lanka?
AM: This is a common issue in Asia. Almost all governments in Asia think that they can attract direct foreign investment when there is no labour law, when there is flexibility for employers to maximise their exploitation. This is the case in India, which is pushing through unified labour laws, and this is also happening in Bangladesh.
I think that’s a completely wrong attitude. Investors want more industrial peace, but industrial peace will only come when the workers are satisfied. And to satisfy the workforce, we need regulations. Labour laws are how the workers have been protected.
We are opposed to the reform process in which they have formulated the labour law reform as totally anti-democratic. It should be a social dialogue, but they just ignored it. They had so-called public hearings and said they formulated the labour laws after the public hearings. However, we found that they brought the same labour laws as they proposed in 2019. They argue that because these labour laws are stringent, investors do not want to come to Sri Lanka.
This government is using the economic crisis to bring these laws because the conditions are so bad, so they think it is time to push through this labour law reform. The government is pushing it through the parliament because they can get the majority in the parliament. But the Sri Lankan parliament doesn’t have the mandate of the people.
This anti-democratic process can also be seen in the fact that the National Labour Advisory Council, a tripartite body, ousted four unions, including our union, to ensure the Council adopted the labour laws. This is because they know we have continuously been challenging anti-labour actions since 2009. We still work with the ousted unions.
ALR: How would the reform erode workers’ conditions?
AM: The government’s role is to protect workers from the employers. But now, what they are proposing is that the employers and employees can get together and decide the terms and conditions. We know what will happen if an employer says I want to employ you for 12 hours. Can the employee say no? If the employee says no, the employer will say, “Okay, you can go”.
They proposed a 12-hour working day without paid overtime. The limit on overtime is now 60 hours per month. They are going to increase it to 75 hours a month. It is forced labour. Employers can also decide which day of the week should be the weekly holiday instead of Sunday. That means when the children are at home, the parents are at the workplace. What happened to this work-life balance?
Currently, female workers cannot be employed after 10 p.m. The government wanted to change the law to allow this. The government said that they have to do it because many multinational companies are not coming until we change the law. We said, “No, women workers should be given the opportunity to decide.” The Women’s Bureau of the Labour Ministry surveyed women workers, and more than 80% of women said, “No, we don’t want to work after 10 p.m.”. But they changed the law and allowed employers to employ women workers after 10 p.m. with some conditions.
And, the employers are given the right to dismiss any worker by giving them 30 days’ notice. If they don’t have raw materials, if they don’t have orders, or if the employer wants to restructure the factory, the employers can say, “I don’t want to you, and I will give a 30-day notice”. They can’t do this now.
And right now, seven workers can form a trade union. The government is proposing to increase this to 200 workers. That means there will be no unions in the smaller factories. Furthermore, the Labour Department can ask for any documents from the trade unions. If the trade union say no because there are some documents we don’t want to reveal, the unions can be punished. This is interfering with trade union activities.
We are going backwards.
ALR: What actions have unions taken against this labour law reform?
AM: We have started campaigns. We protested strongly in front of the Colombo Railway Station on July 25. We will distribute leaflets to educate the workers about the labour law reforms. And we are going to come up with our position papers.
We have also launched an international campaign. We are asking all the trade unions and labour rights groups in other countries to write to the Sri Lankan embassies in their countries and ask them why they brought such anti-worker labour law reforms. We want international groups to support the Sri Lankan workers to continue our struggle.
ALR: Beyond the specific demands on the labour law reforms, what are the broader demands by the trade union movement right now for Sri Lanka?
AM: We demand that families on lower incomes, earning less than 75,000 rupees per month, be given food parcels twice a month because these are the vulnerable groups in Sri Lanka. According to recent research, 70% of Sri Lankan people live in poverty.
At the same time, we are completely against the privatisation of public enterprises which are making profits. Now, the government wants to hand them to private companies.