People are not usually well disposed towards banks. They are considered a necessary evil. This attitude is not of recent origin. It is as old as the hills: Aristotle had this to say about usury, the prototype of modern banking: The trade of the petty usurer is hated with most reason: it makes a profit from currency itself instead of making it from the process which currency was meant to serve. Their common characteristic is obviously their sordid avarice. The Bard, too, may have thought along the same lines, as evident from this wise counsel in Hamlet: Neither a borrower nor a lender be! Remember the treatment meted out to Shylock the usurer in Merchant of Venice. One of our politicians minced no words when he, true to form, told a top gun of an international lending agency in his typical Singlish: `You people are drinking our blood, no?`
Banks, like other members of the corporate sector, have devised innovative ways and means of sloughing off that kind of negative image. They leave no stone unturned in their efforts to bring themselves closer to the people. Today, we report a voluntary promotion campaign the Bank of Ceylon workers are going to launch at the grassroots level shortly.
It may look yet another promotional gimmick by a bank but it is, we reckon, of far more significance and, therefore, worth a comment. The campaign on the cards is suggestive of a radical departure from the lackadaisical manner in which the state sector employees have been relating to their institutions. They don`t usually give a damn about the wellbeing of their workplaces and it is only when they are put up for sale (for a song) that workers wake up to the parlous situation they are in. They take to the streets and climb water towers in protest but by that time it is too late.
True, there have been instances where successive governments, driven by their leaders` greed for kickbacks and other considerations, divested the state of even profit-making enterprises. But, overall, the blame for the sale of state ventures should be apportioned to workers who have either brought about their downfall or provided corrupt politicians with an excuse to resort to divestiture as a remedy.
State banks are said to be on an even keel financially but trade unions are complaining that there is a sinister move to privatise them. The government has sought to allay such fears but doubts still linger, given the way politicians signal left and turn right abruptly!
It is against the suspected privatisation move and the highly competitive environment that the state banks have had to operate in, with more and more private banks entering a near saturated market that the scheduled door-to-door campaign in question should be viewed.
Among the various factors that are gnawing on the state sector in particular and the national economy in general are irresponsible trade unionism, political interference and lack of motivation of the workforce. There may be hardly anything that we can do about a bunch of inveterate self-seeking opportunists aka politicians, as they have become a law unto themselves. They may be voted out of power but in so doing the people change only the bottle and the old wine remains. Trade unions are no better. The developed nations are where they are today not only because of the inspiring political leaders they were blessed with but also due to the contribution of workers and their unions who, so to speak, slogged their guts out for their countries.
Sri Lankan trade unions are blatantly demand oriented. As for the duties and responsibilities of their members, mum`s the word on their part. We are yet to hear of a trade union that urges its members to be diligent in their work. No institution can aspire to progress with a workforce that has a callous disregard for punctuality. Whenever an attempt is made to enforce punctuality at a workplace, it is met with fierce resistance from trade unions. The recent dispute in the health sector over clocking in is a case in point.
However, it is heartening that at least some state institutions have managed to break free from trade union aggressiveness and hubris and become shining examples of efficiency. The Castle Street Hospital has, as we have pointed out previously, blazed a trail in the health sector, thanks to proper leadership and motivation. The Kirulapone Police Station is another example. There are several other state institutions which compare easily with any of the best managed private sector ventures. This proves that state employees and their unions are not beyond redemption.
In the aftermath of the tsunami disaster, the infrastructural facilities devastated along the coastal belt were restored in record time. The otherwise lethargic railway workers sprang into action and repaired the tracks swiftly. The Water Board, CEB and the Telecom workers fared in a similar manner. Together they achieved a feat which many thought would take months, if not years. The killer waves had woken a sleeping giant! But, it has sadly gone back into its usual slumber.
The private sector may be the engine of growth that it is said to be and an environment should be created for it to flourish. Similarly, a robust state sector is a sine qua non for national development. The country is paying dearly for the neglect of the state enterprises such as the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB).
State bank employees and their union leaders seem to be moving in the right direction and they deserve approbation and encouragement. Unless they put their shoulders to the wheel to develop their own institutions, who else will?
Let their counterparts in other fields emulate them. That is the only way to pull the state sector out the mire it finds itself in.