September 23, 2022

Sri Lankan workers discuss struggle for democratic and socialist congress

In accordance with the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe is accelerating its measures to privatize public companies in Sri Lanka.

The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) reacted by stepping up the fight for workers to create their own action committees and by organizing a Democratic and Socialist Congress of Workers and Rural Masses to fight against the government’s attacks on the employment and social rights.

Colombo port workers parade on April 20, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

The SEP’s call for Congress is to provide political direction to the widespread opposition among workers revealed by months of mass protests and strikes against runaway inflation and severe shortages. The popular uprising forced Gotabhaya Rajapakse to flee the country and resign as president, but the Wickremesinghe government, with the support of the entire political establishment, is implementing the same IMF austerity program.

Over the past few weeks, activists have distributed SEP statements and held discussions with Colombo port and irrigation department workers. Statements circulated include: “Reject the multi-party regime! No to IMF austerity! Fight to build the Democratic and Socialist Congress of Workers and Rural Masses! and “Free students detained under anti-terrorism laws!” as well as the WSWS article “JVP attempts to revive myths about parliamentary democracy”.

The strategically located port of Colombo, owned by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), is a key target of the government’s privatization drive. Much of the port has already been opened to foreign investors, particularly Indian and Chinese.

Speaking to SEP activists, a worker from the tug section said: “I have worked here for decades. Due to union betrayals, most of the sections here have already been assigned to the private sector. The rest is also about to be privatized.

“Senior managers are already not filling vacancies when employees retire at age 60 and many workers are due to retire this year. Sometimes retired workers are rehired on a contract basis so that the work can be done at a lower cost. The government is preparing to fully implement the IMF program in the port.

The tug worker told SEP activists that he had previously been linked to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) but left the organization because of its pro-capitalist politics, citing in particular a recent meeting between the US Ambassador in Colombo and the leaders of the JVP.

He said the JVP-controlled All-Ceylon General Port Workers‘ Union, in alliance with other unions, limited workers’ struggles to calling on the government to end the privatization. It has become futile, he said, “and the privatization continues.”

Colombo port workers demonstrate against privatization on February 2, 2017 [AP Photo]

SEP activists explained the party’s call for a democratic and socialist Congress of Workers and Rural Masses based on workers’ action committees and why it was necessary to fight for this perspective.

“I see this as an important proposal to mobilize the working class with a socialist program against the pro-capitalist program of the unions,” the tug department worker said.

Nishantha, a technical worker, said: “The cost of living has increased since January but our wages are stagnating. We want a solution. Lower the prices of the goods or give us a decent salary, solve at least one of these problems. Workers everywhere face the same problems.

SEP members explained the need for workers to develop action committees and fight for a unified movement of the working class. Nishantha pointed out that the port unions had established a front with the telecommunications and oil unions, but that it was not a real working class unity.

“The unions discuss with the authorities and the government, take decisions, then impose them on us. They don’t consult grassroots members. It is important that we set up our own action committees so that workers can discuss their issues and make decisions,” he said.

A worker at the Jaya container terminal accepted SEP’s calls for an action committee to be established at the port and said this should be accelerated. Port unions, he said, have covered up major problems facing workers, including privatization, job cuts and inflation.

“I agree with the points you have raised. Workers must organize action committees independent of the unions and all capitalist parties. This is a crisis of the capitalist system based on private profit.

“I appreciate the efforts of World Socialist Website to organize workers around the world. I support your campaign and would like to join the fight to build an action committee in the port,” he said.

A casual employee from South Asia Gateway Terminal joined the discussion. “We work as casual workers. I’ve been here for two years and I’m still not permanent. It is extremely difficult to live on the current salary and we have asked the human rights office to increase our salaries. At least government employees are protesting. We don’t even have unions,” he said.

S. Arul, another worker, said, “I am a clerk in an institute related to the port. My business now has less work due to limited imports. I only get half of my previous salary but the cost of living has more than tripled. I used to be able to manage my family’s expenses with some difficulty, but now it’s totally impossible.

Arul took part in the mass protests that began in April against spiraling inflation, shortages of essential commodities and power cuts, and to demand the resignation of former President Rajapakse and his government.

“Rajapakse was kicked out and now we have President Wickremesinghe, but each side agrees to ask for help from the IMF,” he said. “As you say, the masses will suffer even more if IMF conditions are implemented. I agree with a program to unite workers internationally with an independent program for workers.

Shanmugarajah, a small trader near the port, also spoke to SEP activists.

“I read your party’s third leaflet, after the protests started across the country. I see here that you are completely different from all the others [parties]. I earn a little money to support my family by bringing objects from India and reselling them here. Rising exchange rates and the current price of airline tickets have depleted my income,” he said.

“I voted for several parties,” he continued, “but no matter who comes to power, our lives keep going downhill.”

Galle Face Green protesters demanded Rajapakse’s ouster, he said. “[They] talked about a system change, but didn’t elaborate on what it was and how it could be done. I understand that this can happen under socialism and I thank you all for your attempts to raise awareness among ordinary people. I agree with your proposals,” he said.

SEP members also campaigned in housing for irrigation service employees in Ratmalana, on the outskirts of Colombo. This neighborhood consists of more than 200 houses.

Sumith, an irrigation worker from the engineering geology department, said, “All projects in the irrigation department have been stopped. We don’t receive any overtime pay, so it’s impossible to live on the meager salary of 30-40,000 rupees that we receive, after loan installments have been deducted.

“We thought we could win through the mass uprising in Galle Face, but we have no relief even though President Rajapakse has been removed from office. I have supported these agitations whenever possible, but now we have to think about how we can move forward,” he said.

Piyasiri, an irrigation worker in the mechanical section, said he voted for the ruling Rajapakse party in the last general election but was now angry and regretted the decision.

“We can’t live on our monthly salary, so the irrigation department workers are frustrated. We participated in the protests but people don’t have answers to their problems,” he said.

“All parties agree to get an IMF loan, but no one is talking about the harsh conditions that will be imposed,” he continued, then asked how to create a workers’ action committee.

Activists said action committees — unlike unions which are governed by state laws — are democratically elected by workers and fight for their interests. Unions, they continued, are formed by rank and divide workers. Action committees reject such divisions and fight to unite workers and mobilize their power across industries and nationally and internationally through the International Workers’ Alliance.

Manuvarna, an irrigation service driver said, “They [the government and its lackeys] claim that the root cause of all the problems is that government employees are not working while we are working more than eight hours a day. The government and the media slander state workers.

“It’s very difficult to live with now. The children don’t have an education and there is no way to provide adequate food for our children with our meager salaries. It’s hard to imagine how to get out of this mess but what we see is that the unions are on the side of the rulers.The union leaders are only interested in their own privileges, not in the needs of the workers.