The Labour Tribunal which is the most popular forum among the workers was 50 years old last month, having been first established on May 2, 1959. It may be interesting for the present day working class to know its history.
The Industrial Disputes Act No.3 of 1950 which later provided for the establishment of Labour Tribunal replaced the Industrial Disputes (Conciliation) Ordinance No.3 of 1931 - a piece of legislation provided for the investigation and settlement of industrial disputes.
This Ordinance empowered the Controller of Labour, when an industrial dispute existed or is apprehended to take steps to enable parties to meet by themselves or their representatives under the presidency of a Chairman mutually agreed upon or nominated by the Controller.
The Controller had the power to refer a dispute to a Board with or without the consent of the parties. These Boards were known as 'Conciliation Boards'. When it was not possible to secure the representation of the parties, the Board was to consist of the Chairman only which office was held by the Controller himself or any other public officer appointed for the purpose. This Ordinance also empowered the Governor at any time to appoint a Commission consisting of one or more persons to inquire into any mater relating to industry.
When there was a world crisis in 1942 and it came close to our doorstep, it became absolutely necessary for the maintenance of the war effort and the life of the community and to ensure that production and essential services were not hampered by industrial unrest. With a view to combat this situation the government promulgated war-time Defence Regulations which suspended the operation of Industrial Disputes (Conciliation) Ordinance and introduced Essential Services (Avoidance of Strikes and Lock-outs) Orders -1942. Under these Orders all services essential to the war effort and to the life of the community were declared 'essential services' in which industrial strikes and lock-outs were prohibited and made provision for compulsory arbitration in respect of essential services by special tribunals.
At the cessation of hostilities in 1945 the War-time Regulations were rescinded and the Conciliation Ordinance of 1931 surfaced again. The provisions in this Ordinance was found to be inadequate to meet the needs of economic and social developments that was taking place as a feature of the post-war world. This situation prompted the then government to appoint a Commission to look into the changes needed for industrial peace. And it was on a recommendation of this Commission that the legislature enacted the Industrial Disputes Act No.43 of 1950 bringing in new machinery for the settlement of industrial disputes.
The Act was a progressive piece of legislation although the then Opposition was not very happy about some of the provisions included in the Act. In the course of the Parliamentary debate on this Bill then Opposition leader Dr.N.M.Perera referring to the Bill said, "This serves one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to prevent healthy trade unionism, to prevent all militant work within the trade union movement." He was opposed to the provisions relating to compulsory arbitration and resulting illegality of strikes.
This Act empowered the Minister of Labour to refer an industrial dispute which term included a dispute over termination of employment, to an Industrial Court or to an Arbitrator for settlement. These bodies were statutorily empowered to order the re-instatement of a workman in service. Nevertheless a workman unfairly dismissed had no direct access to these bodies. He had to depend on the Commissioner and on the discretion of the Minister, unless a voluntary settlement was reached with the assistance of the Commissioner of Labour for which the blessings of a hostile employer was necessary. This placed a workman who was unfairly terminated in a very pathetic situation without a proper machinery by which he could seek a direct remedy.
It was to fill this lacuna that the Industrial Disputes Act of 1950 was amended by amending Act No.62 of 1957. This Act gave an altogether different complexion to the original Act. It was this amending Act that created the new machinery called 'Labour Tribunal' making provision for a workman who is 'aggrieved' over his termination to seek a remedy direct by making an application to the Labour Tribunal on his own without going through the Commissioner or the Minster. Although the Act was passed in the Parliament in 1957 the first Labour Tribunal was established in May 1958 in Colombo with Mr.W,P,N.de Silva (author of 'Industrial Conflict -A study of Trade Union Strategy and the Law" ).
These Tribunals are constituted of one person called the "President". In 1960/61 four more Tribunals were established in the outstations. One of the Presidents appointed in 1961 was the famous authority on Industrial Law and Relations Mr. W.E.M.Abeysekara who is the author of the four volume thesis titled 'Industrial Law and Adjudication' which runs into 1708 pages. We are this year celebrating the 'Golden Jubilee' of the establishment of this important and popular body. Since then the provisions relating to this machinery have been amended several times in an attempt to improve them but unfortunately certain amendments exhibit legislative blundering which has confused the whole exercise.
Labour Tribunals have become the most popular machinery among the workmen who are 'aggrieved' over the termination of their services and they should be indebted to the man behind the creation of this worker-friendly Tribunal.
This piece of legislation was introduced in the Parliament for the second reading on 5th May 1957 by the late.T.B.Ilangaratne, the then Minister of Labour, Housing and Social Services in the Bandaranaike government formed in 1956. Mr Ilangaratne was a pioneer member of the SLFP formed by S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike. He entered Parliament in May 1948 for the first time at the first election held after independence as the member for the Kandy Electorate which seat he later lost as a result of an Election Petition but in his place people elected his wife Thamara at the by-election. After the prohibitive period of five years he was again elected to the Parliament to represent the Galaha Electrorate in 1956
Mr Ilangaratne was picked by Mr Bandaranaike to hold the important office of Minister of Labour probably because of his background as a labour leader. Mr Ilangaratne was a clerk in the government service and was enthusiastically involved in trade union activities. He was elected as the President of the Government Clerical Service Union in 1947.
At this time Ceylon was at the verge of getting independence and reaching towards an end of a colonial administration with the emergence of a government of the people which naturally provided an impetus and an inducement for the growth and development of trade unionism. The trade unions, flushed with the success of a strike in the private sector in October 1946, were aggressive in 1947 which led to the General Strike in May-June 1947. At this stage a new development took place. A number of public service trade unions, who had been clamouring for trade union and political rights, decided to hold a mass rally in support of their demands. The rally was held at the public promenade on the Galle Face Green on 29th May,1947. This rally was addressed by a number of politicians among whom were Dr. N.M.Perera, Pieter Keuneman, Philp Gunawardena and G.G. Ponnambalam.
The first three were eminent trade union leaders as well. Speaker after speaker at the rally criticized the government and particularly demanded the immediate recall of Sir Henry Moore the then Governor.
The government piqued at the demands made at this rally, interdicted from office on 30th May, 1947 all the signatories to the notice convening the rally. Sixteen public servants mainly in the clerical grades, were involved in this disciplinary action. All these were subsequently dismissed from service.
Two among these 16 were Mr Ilangaratne, the President of the Government Clerical Service Union and Bala Tampoe, a member of the Executive Committee. On dismissal Mr Ilangaratne took up to politics and Mr Tampoe entered the Law College and later became a very eminent criminal lawyer. He is the only one living today out of the 16 employees who lost their employment in the public service. He never gave up his trade union activities even as a lawyer and was throughout actively involved in trade union activities as the General Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Employees Union. We wish him long life.
At the second reading in the House of representatives on 5th May 1957, Mr. Ilangaratne explained the provision in the proposed legislation as follows:-
"This Bill seeks to improve some of the existing provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act and to introduce some new features, the most important being the establishment of Labour Tribunals. These amendments are designed to provide adequate machinery for the speedy settlement of industrial disputes both collective and individual."
There are many labour legislation to the credit of Mr Ilangaratne, including the Employees Provident Fund Act, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrated last year.
(The writer is the lecturer in Industrial Law at the Sri Lanka Law College)