The bane of Sri Lanka`s labour movement is its over politicisation. Nothing could be devoid of power politics in this complex modern world, it may be argued, but politicians are like the proverbial camel that first thrust its head into an Arab`s tent. Workers have made the mistake of having reduced themselves to the palanquin bearers of wily politicians, as evident from the May Day rallies, where most workers shamelessly sing hosannas to the very politicians, at whose behest workers` rights have been curtailed under successive governments.
In the plantation sector, too, power politics has had a corrosive effect on trade unionism. Although the Ceylon Workers` Congress (CWC) and the Up-country People`s Front (UPF) came into being as trade unions today they have become neither fish nor fowl with their leaders using workers` votes to go places in politics.
The CWC and the UPF have turned the on-going estate dispute into a political wrangle. The ca`canny that workers staged recently demanding a daily wage of Rs. 500 initially had the blessings of all plantation trade unions. However, now that employers have agreed to grant a wage of Rs. 405 (an increase of Rs. 115), the CWC has called off trade union action much to the consternation of other warring unions, which are refusing to settle for anything less than Rs. 500.
On Sunday, the UPF led by Minister P. Chandrasekaran vowed to go ahead with trade union action unless workers` demand was granted in full. It accused the CWC of having betrayed workers` struggle. A UPF protest march came under a teargas attack by the police. The pro-Opposition trade unions also have spurned the wage hike the CWC has accepted.
Estate workers living in abject poverty, no doubt, deserve a better deal. It is only natural that they are demanding better wages. But, the question is whether a huge wage hike is feasible and the impact it is sure to have on the industry as a whole needs to be properly assessed. Employers` callousness is only too well known and they cannot be expected to tell the truth about their bottom line. Similarly, political trade unions are ruthlessly demand oriented and always want their pound of flesh no matter what. They are doing an Oliver Twist (and their paymasters a Shylock). They do not believe in give and take. They only get and forget. That workers` future depends on the profitability of the industry means nothing to them. Responsibility for them is something alien.
Thus, trade unions and proprietors stick to their extreme positions like limpets at the expense of the much needed reconciliation and the wellbeing of the plantation industry. A similar situation prevails more or less in all other sectors characterized by frequent labour disputes.
Politicians cum trade unionists responsible for the plantation dispute are trying to upstage one another for political expedience. The UPF is making most of the situation to cast the CWC in a bad light and the latter is flaunting the wage hike as an achievement of its own to gain some political mileage at a time its support base in the hills is threatened with erosion. Now, the rivals of the CWC will go all out to win either Rs. 500 or at least something more than the CWC has managed to extract for workers so as to claim victory. Their protests are likely to become more and more aggressive with the passage of time, as employers will refuse to budge again with the CWC on their side. Disruptions on estates might be the outcome because the smaller unions, having lost their bargaining power, may want to resort to strong arm tactics. Worse, they cannot give up their fight without having egg on their face and letting the CWC have the last laugh.
The only way out is for the government to step in to prevent the estate dispute developing into a fully-fledged prestige battle which will lead to anarchy on plantations. The industry has suffered enough over the past two weeks or so and it is badly in need of a breather. Let Shylocks and Oliver Twists be told in no uncertain terms that what awaits them, if they go on tightening their grip on each other`s jugular, is Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD!