ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 9, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 28

Apparel exporters back off as ILO backs striking workers

The Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) last week withdrew its action initiated in the Supreme Court against port workers who staged a ‘work-to-rule’ campaign in July to win a pay raise, soon after the International Labour Organisation (ILO) ruled that the Court ruling was contrary to the principles set out in its fundamental Conventions that Sri Lanka had ratified and pledged to uphold.

The Court issued an interim order in July which “restrained port unions from engaging in trade union activity which would reduce or undermine the full productivity levels of the ports of the country.” JAAF Counsel Sanjeewa Jayewardene told court the case was being withdrawn as following the interim order, the issue between the union members and the Port Authority had been settled and there was no need to pursue the case further. The Forum had filed application on three earlier occasions to withdraw the case and finally the case was withdrawn on Thursday.

The ILO ruling on the case came in response to a complaint filed by seven trade unions before the ILO Committee alleging that in July 2006, JAAF, a third party unconnected to the trade union dispute of port workers and the Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA), obtained a Court order to quash the trade union action.

“Sri Lanka has ratified fundamental conventions of the ILO and has also obtained preferential trade facilities (EU GSP) from the European Union citing its commitment to these international standards. In the event of a Supreme Court ruling that decisions of the ILO are not admissible in Sri Lanka, it will go against the undertaking and assurance of the Government of Sri Lanka, that principles of fundamental ILO Conventions are applicable in the country,” the ILO Governing Body Committee on Freedom of Association ruled during its sessions in Geneva last month.

The ILO Committee warned that the EU is scheduled to conduct a review on Sri Lanka’s application of these ILO and UN Conventions to decide the continuation of tariff preferences and that this decision having the endorsement of the highest decision making body of the ILO will no doubt figure as a thorny issue in the EU standards review.

The Supreme Court issued two interim orders in July last year after a fundamental rights petition was filed by the Chairman of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), on the grounds that the work-to-rule by the workers has affected normal import and export business activities and therefore the fundamental right “to equality and right to engage in the lawful occupation of his choice” had been violated.

The ILO Committee noted that the right to strike may be restricted or prohibited (1) in the public service only for public servants exercising authority in the name of the state or (2) in essential services in the strict sense of the term - that is, services the interruption of which would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole of part of the population.

The ILO said that apart from JAAF’s pleading of economic losses suffered as a result of the action, no evidence has been put forward to establish the existence of a clear and imminent threat to the life , personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population.

In these circumstances, the ILO’s quasi judicial body has concluded that the Supreme Court interim order was contrary to the principles set put in the ILO Convention No. 87 on the Freedom of Association and the Protection of the Right to Organise and ILO Convention No. 98 on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining.

ILO Conventions Nos. 87 and 98 are two Conventions that Sri Lanka has ratified and pledged to implement in law and practice in return for preferential traffic concessions from the EU through its generalized System of Preference (GSP) scheme in accessing European markets for 7200 local products including apparel that accounts for one half of Sri Lanka’s total export revenue.

On the legality of the go slow, the ILO Committee said regardless of whether the action in question is a work-to-rule or actually a go-slow, it has always recognized the right to strike by workers as a legitimate means of defending their economic and social interests and that various types of strike action fall within the scope of this principle. Restrictions regarding various types of strike action may be justified only if the strike ceases to be peaceful.

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