SRI – LANKA: Institute for Social Development

SRI – LANKA: Institute for Social Development

SRI – LANKA: Institute for Social Development


P. Muthulingam is the director of our affiliate in Sri Lanka. He spoke to IFWEA about workers and trade unions in Sri Lanka, how ISD tailors education and organising to service them, and the impact of the Easter Sunday bombing on Sri Lankan society – and has a message of solidarity for worker educators.

Can you tell us about ISD’s programmes?

We are doing programmes looking at the capacity of the communities, especially the working class in the unorganised and the organised sector, the existing laws of the country relating to the working class and the communities, and we are educating them on human rights and their development rights.

We have special programmes to educate the community on governance – that’s one programme we carry out. Under that, we have a programme where we try to educate youth, women, and adults on local and national government – on their role as citizens.

Apart from that, with the second programme we are educating the unorganised sector workers who are covered by labour legislation, yet are not organised. They work in malls, shops, and small industries and here we especially focus on women workers.

Another programme the ISD is conducting is creating awareness around water and sanitation, especially focusing on young girls and women in the plantation sector as this relates to women and women’s rights. So these are the sorts of educational programmes we are conducting.

How do you work with trade unions and worker associations, and how do workers come to participate in the educational programmes?

Firstly, we work closely with several tea plantation workers’ unions and we align these unions to our education work. Sometimes we approach workers independently, but we work more closely with the trade unions. The second thing is that in the unorganised sector, workers are not organised under trade unions, so we’ve formed another union which specifically focuses on women in the unorganised sector.

Organised sector unions are not willing to organise these workers, so ISD is closely linked with the organised sector unions and we told them we are organising these workers because they are not and they said go ahead! ISD then registered a women trade union called Working Women Front under the Ministry of Labour in 2011. This is the first women trade union in Sri Lanka headed by Ms K.Yogeswary.

Organised sector workers are happy with this because they don’t like to work with unorganised workers because those workers jump from one form of employment to another quite regularly – so the organised sector unions are not willing to organise them.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that face workers in Sri Lanka?

The biggest challenge is organizing the unorganised sector workers who are often employed under contract. The workers are not able to organise themselves or be organised by the trade unions. That is a big challenge because years ago workers used to work for a particular firm or industry for several years.

Now with globalisation, most of the companies hire workers on contracts of between two to three years. If workers work for more than five years, companies must pay different fringe benefits. If you work for one year in a particular company and you are sacked by the management or the company is not satisfied, you will leave for another company and another two-year contract.

A few years ago a garment factory which hired workers on a non-permanent basis closed down. However, in Sri Lanka a company can’t be closed without the involvement of the trade unions. This was challenged in court and after six months they reappointed and recruited many of the same workers. The legal challenge meant that the factory had to reopen. Workers are meeting with employers by themselves. Apart from that workers don’t like to approach the trade unions.

Companies not allowed to form trade unions, and some companies inform the workers they recruit not to get involved with any trade union, or any other labour organisation. Due to fear, the workers do not dare to form any unions. Furthermore, workers are used to working throughout the month without breaks, generally, they will be given 4 days holidays (days off) per month. Therefore there is no time for the workers to mobilise themselves into unions.

In your assessment, are ISD’s education programmes helping workers to address their challenges?

Yes, for example, ISD calls workers to workshops around labour legislation and the rights of union workers and the wider working class. Sometimes we do online education around a specific issue. Currently, we have a WhatsApp group and pass information to members through WhatsApp and email.

How does education impact on workers in your experience?

When we are educating the community on their rights, we’ve identified that after educating workers, they are less easily exploited and more aware of their rights once they are employed. In this way, they can challenge their employer, so education has that kind of impact.

By educating the workers you cannot expect an immediate impact, it will take some time. In some cases, we can see an immediate impact, that all depends on the courage of an individual worker and the working environment. Some workers immediately demand their rights once enlightened. So, worker education will bring impacts in the short term or long term.

What kinds of education methodologies does ISD practice in education programmes?

One of our modules is on trade union organising, where we would invite workers to a workshop on what the rights of the worker and the employer are. In the WhatsApp group, people can share information with people who are not part of the workshop. A worker is anyone who works – be it for a company or a shop, be it for one day or one month, and they all have rights. All workers must be aware of their rights.

Workers have the right to join a trade union and know factory ordinances, employer’s contact details, etc. Workers have the right to mobilise and the right of association. Generally, the workers won’t keep records on their employment history such date of employment, salary particulars, leave particulars. So, we educate them to keep all those particulars.

Can you describe what happened in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019 and how this has impacted on Sri Lankan society?

What happened on Easter Sunday was an unexpected terror incident causing a rift between Sinhala and Tamil Muslim community.  Ordinary Sinhala persons look at the fellow Muslims persons with suspicion. As well as workers in the public sector, the majority of Sinhala employees are suspicious of fellow Muslim workers.

The working class has been encouraged not to purchase any goods from Muslim shops. The working class has a difficult task currently and are treating each other with suspicion.

Political party leaders are using this incident as part of their political interests. People are suspicious of each other and this is common in every sector in Sri Lanka now. It will take some time to become a normal situation again. The trade unions have to play a bigger role to bring unity among the working class by countering propaganda by the racist forces.

The Sri Lankan government has been restricted access to the Internet and social media like WhatsApp – although it has been temporary, do you see it as restriction of freedom to expression and information? 

Social media is one of the arms that create more suspicion in the majority community towards the Muslim community. I think what the government did with social media was good at that time. Months before there had been organised mobs by the majority community, organised through social media. This is not positive freedom of expression but the government acted too late. In the meantime, using the media freedom the government is not able to close down the key television stations or print media. Everyone will complain about freedom of speech if this happens.

What is the role of the media? Do you have the problem of disinformation or ‘fake news’ in Sri Lanka? Does the ISD assist workers with understanding what’s true and what’s false in the media?

Media have to play a bigger role in this crisis period in order to prevent ethnic conflict. However, during the crisis, some of the electronic media and print media acted to create hatred against the Muslims. Our own social media is limited to one small unit which must reach the wider community. Although we are countering racism through social media the print and television media have more coverage.  Following the Easter Sunday incident, there was ‘fake news’ in social media. This fake news created hatred among the Sinhala community towards the Muslim community. In that juncture, ISD played a small role through its social media – to caution not to trust ‘fake news’ until the state releases the truth. Actually, we are not in a position to challenge the big media which exaggerated the incidents of the state arresting the suspects.

What are the challenges of being a worker educator in Sri Lanka?

Working class unity is the biggest challenge. The working class is now divided. Building the working class under a working-class ideology is a very difficult task. It happens slowly but there is no consensus of what’s required of the working class.  The working class should fight against and oppression in the workplace. The working class should possess electronic media. The working class is dominated by political leaders rather than trade union leaders.

Trade unions became tail of capitalist political parties. In the past trade union leadership gave political leadership. Now it is the other way. The organised sector should come forward and take the lead and bring in workers from the unorganised sector into the organised sector because the unorganised sector is increasing day by day. The trade union should follow new strategies to mobilise the new working class, called the unorganised sector working class.

What do you think is the value of worker education for solidarity locally and globally?

Trade unions used to hire worker educators but currently, most of the organised sector working class trade unions do not conduct any form of worker education. They mobilise the worker around grievances and fight for that but are not doing worker education. In our period, every union had a worker education unit with a person responsible for worker education. Organised sector unions did not carry on with that practice because they lack, at the same time the leaders are not preaching the ideology of the working class. They are not concerned about it.

If you look at all countries, including Africa, worker education is taken on by outside entities when it should be carried out by the organised sector unions. Unfortunately, what has happened now is that we are the people who call ourselves worker educators but several years ago,  every union had a worker education unit. We should try to use the materials or create resources to meet the organised sector workers and unorganised sector workers. I think today the role of worker educator is to reach the organised and unorganised sector workers through social media and online education media and educate them on labour rights.

What message would you like to share with worker educators?

It’s the responsibility of the worker educators to educate the organised and unorganised sector workers, educate workers about their rights and build comradeship and solidarity among the working class. Educators should take the lead because the trade union movement is on the decline. Worker educators should involve themselves in organised sector unions because globalisation totally collapsed the trade union movement. Trade unions are on the defensive on global issues and are not involved in worker education. Worker educators should take up arms and collaborate with the trade unions.