Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Sri Lanka: Female union worker stands up to bosses and challenges government greed

Published Date: 
Thursday, December 18, 2014

WELDD has supported the Inter-Ethnic-Solidarity Alliance (IESA) in Sri Lanka since 2012. Union leader Chithrani was one of the attendees at IESA's workshops.

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Chithrani demonstrates for workers’ rights. Photo: Red flag union, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Chithrani is an illiterate union worker who told her bosses that they should not underestimate workers’ ability to see abuses of power. She represented the Red Flag Union at negotiations with the Industrial Dispute Resolution Commissioner in October 2014. The Union is affiliated to IESA under the banner of Citizens for Justice and Peace. Chithrani is a militant grassroots leader from the upcountry plantations of Sri Lanka, who has been actively engaged in fighting against injustice. Her plantation estate, Hare Park, is managed by the government, but it has been deliberately neglected. Workers were given only 10-12 days of work per month, whereas under a previous collective agreement, 25 days was the minimum. Workers needed work in order to feed their families. However, for four years the government had shown a serious lack of concern for the worker’s livelihoods.

In her role as estate committee leader, Chithrani and other leaders attend the labour days and labour department inquiries. Though she did not attend formal school, having only ever learnt how to write her own name, she is well aware of labour laws and worker’s rights.  Chithrani had participated in labor officer’s negotiations before, but this is the first time she had spoken in a Commissioner’s inquiry. What happened next shows the disturbing attitude of the labour board members. They were unwilling to bend their heads and admit their injudicious behavior or actions. The following exchange is between Chithrani and her team and Labour Board:

Labour Board: We gave more than 20 days’ work for Hare Park (plantation in Sri Lanka) estate workers.

Workers: No, you gave only 5-12 days work per month.

Labour Board:Don’t tell lies, our record shows that the management of Sri Lanka State Plantation Company gave more than 20 days of work.

Workers: We are not liars. We can prove that as we have our salary sheet with us.

Labour Board: Our accounts are accurate.  We are 100 per ent sure that we gave more than 20 days’ work and that we maintain the estate properly. Our accounts show that two million rupees was spent for maintaining the Hare Park estate.

Workers:The salary sheets are also provided by your management. We live and work in the same estate. How can you claim you maintained the estate without our knowledge? Every time you mention your record and say that we are liars. You had better check where the money has gone. Whose pockets did it fill? Don’t underestimate workers’ ability to see the hidden hand and the abuse of power. We know the truth.

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Photo: Red flag union, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Standard practice is that only trade union representatives participate in the inquiries, but here the workers did not allow them to take complete charge.  The worker’s sharp answers led the Commissioner to remark that the union should not allow so many workers to join subsequent inquiries. The case continues.

Chithrani was the frontrunner in this discussion. She has had many mobilisation trainings and is leading the struggle for livelihood and land rights for plantation workers of Hare Park estate. The workers are now threatened with eviction because the estate is earmarked for sale to a private owner. The government clearly wishes to profit from selling the estate. Without a care for its citizens, the government prioritises schemes which are likely to benefit its own bureaucrats over schemes which benefit the workers.  The workers have now filed a case in the Labour court and the Industrial Dispute Court and are confident of achieving success.

Editor's note: In their last meeting in December 2014, the IESA decided to change their name to Citizens Voice for Justice and Peace 

Peace and Security
Political and Public Participation
Land and Economic Rights