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Strike threat looms large
By Nalaka Nonis and Santhush Fernando
A threat of a massive strike looms in the near future as the All Ceylon Trade Unions' Congress (ACTUC), warns that the Government will have to face serious consequences, if it does not meet the demands of the working masses.

Public sector trade unions of the ACTUC had organised a protest campaign during the lunch hour in front of government establishments on October 7 and staged a demonstration in the evening in front of the Colombo Fort Railway Station. Although the private sector trade unions had not been involved, they had extended their support along with trade unions affiliated to opposition political parties.

A convenor of the ACTUC, JVP Parliamentarian K.D. Lal Kantha, said that the Executive Committee of the ACTUC has decided to stage a token strike on October 21 (Tuesday), as the penultimate step demanding a salary increase in keeping with the cost of living, a stop to the pruning of employee rights and a halt to the sale of national resources, including government enterprises.

He said that if the Government does not heed these demands, which are being put forward in the interests of 800,000 public servants as well 5 million private sector employees, the trade unions would have no choice but to call a massive island-wide strike to force the Government to take the necessary measures.

He also called on public servants not to be misled by the false propaganda of the United National Front Government. He pointed out that the previous government had granted an allowance of Rs. 2,200 as a temporary measure until salaries were increased. He said public servants brought this government into power because it had promised a minimum salary increase of Rs. 3,000, but now it is trying to give a mere Rs. 800 increase.

He said this was not at all reasonable as the cost of living has increased by 448 units in the year 2002 alone. He also said that the Government had up to now axed 53 labour laws and is planning to slash more.

He stated that through its program "Regaining Sri Lanka", the Government, in return for the Rs. 450 billion donor aid, has pledged to the World Bank to sell national assets and axe the public servants salaries, in the guise of speeding up privatisation and slashing government expenditure.

He said that although the UNF-allied Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) does not officially support the ACTUC, he would extend his hand to all progressive members of the JSS to join with it to win the demands of the working masses.

Tourism Minister Gamini Lokuge told The Sunday Times that the real motive behind the proposed strike is to cripple the peace process and the development work of the Government.

He said that the problems being faced now are due to ill-planned decisions of the previous government. In regard to privatisation he said that it was an election promise of the Government to privatise loss making establishments. He warned that the Government would take every step possible to see that everything is normal, in the event of a strike.

Meanwhile, the recent strikes which crippled the health and railway sector, had drastic consequences both for the economy and the public at large. Thousands of people representing the poor in the country, were made to suffer immensely from the two major strikes, as the strikes affected two vital services.

The Government and the trade unions blamed each other for the damage they had caused to public property, as well as for the immense hardships caused to the people. The government points the finger at the trade unions which have resorted to strikes, saying that they are politically motivated as, according to it, the JVP is instigating the unions to topple the government, whereas trade unions maintain that the government has failed to fulfil their fundamental demands.

The health strike, which was launched demanding the rectification of salary anomalies among health workers caused great inconvenience to the public and damages to state property (see box story). Finally the strike ended after a pledge was given by the government to rectify salary anomalies.

The recently concluded railway strike had among its demands, compensation of Rs. one million to those who retire without joining the newly established Railway Authority, pensions for workers who have less than 10 years service, a salary increase of 75 percent, and pensions for those joining the Authority.

Managing Director of the Railway Department N.F.U.K. Fernando told The Sunday Times that some of the demands were unreasonable with some kind of political hand in the strike. He has estimated a loss of Rs. three million for the Railway Department by the damage caused to compartments and trains by the strikers, which the CID is investigating.

He added that the Department had promoted a guard inspector as an executive officer for being tough on workers who had indulged in fraudulent practices.

Tragic result
Tragedy struck a family in Moratuwa when a 30-year-old telecommunication engineer, Vidura Prasad Pahalavithana of Kadalana, fell to his death from a packed train at Moratuwa on October 2.

His father, Wijayadasa Pahalavithana, a retired public servant, told The Sunday Times that his family has been devastated by his son's death. He said that on that morning his son went to work as usual by train. He said that the train had been fully packed because of the strike. Although his son does not travel on the footboard, he had no choice but to do so on that day. He had lost his grip and fallen on to the railway track, 200 metres from the next station and had died on the spot. A post mortem had been held at the Lunawa Hospital.

Mr. Pahalavithana said that Vidura Prasad was the eldest of his two sons and it was as if he had lost one of his eyes. He said that the strike not only disrupted the lives of the public but caused the life of his son to be taken away as well. He said that as a Buddhist living a simple life he wished that it would never happen to anyone in the future.

The cost
The Health Services Trade Union Alliance (HSTUA), revealed to the media that during the health strike from September 17 to 29, around 33 ambulances and 10 other vehicles had met with accidents and had suffered damage estimated at Rs. 1.8 million. It pointed out that health authorities, who had deployed armed forces and SLCTB drivers should take the responsibility for the losses.

When inquiries were made from the Health Ministry, an official said that the estimates had been done at hospital level and then submitted for Ministry approval.
Acts of sabotage and attempted sabotage had been reported from general and base hospitals around the country, except in the North and East where in some hospitals, such as the Vavuniya Base Hospital the staff had been ordered by the LTTE to go back to work.

Several vehicles at the Kandy General Hospital had been damaged while in Kurunegala the telephone wires had been cut allegedly by strikers.

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