Covid 19 – An eye opener for Workers

By Wijepala Weerakoon

The Covid 19 pandemic that people are currently facing has affected different sectors of the country in different ways. The Covid Crisis has taught us many lessons that could not be taught through millions of theoretical discussions, programs, and pamphlets over the years. Working people around the world have been hit hardest by this crisis. The closure of factories and shops immediately after the covid crisis caused billions of contract workers around the world to immediately lose their jobs. In some developed countries, such unemployed workers are paid an unemployment benefit, but in most countries the loss of their jobs pushes them to the brink of death.

How covid 19 crisis affected workers in Sri Lanka? It is clear to us that the contract workers, manpower workers in the export sectors, including garments, were the worst affected. Due to the prevailing pro-worker labour laws which won by workers struggles in the past, employers could not be able to lay off their employees as they want. As soon as the pandemic broke out, employers approached the Minister of Labor and tried to lay off a majority of their workers, but were unable to do so due to the intervention of Trade Unions. Attempts of employers not to pay wages for the workers who could not report to work due to lock downs and curfew also prevented by Trade Unions.

However, the employers were hurried to dismiss the manpower & contract workers, who were unable to influence by Trade Unions. At the same time, employers fired probationers. The reluctance to remove permanent employees was due to the fact that they have to be compensated under the existing laws of the country. However some workers were forced to resign for a small compensation. They were able to do so easily because the workers were not organized and the government, including the Department of Labour also was in the employer’s side.

The second wave of the covid 19 epidemic emerged through the Brandix Company explains that how employers use Managers and supervisors to exploit subordinate employees to bolster their profits. It is revealed in the Parliament also that how superiors forced workers who were infected with fever to take Panadol and work. This greed of the employers caused about 1,500 out of their 1,700 employees infected with covid 19. But the Government is trying to hide this crime since these business tycoons spent billions of rupees during the election period to bring them to power. This crime in the garment sector is second only to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh a few years ago which killed more than one thousand workers. As a result of the international intervention, the victims of the incident received compensation from multinational companies, including brands. A number of agreements were also signed to ensure that such tragedies do not occur in the future.

The institutions that engages in this sin is not only Brandix. This system operates throughout the entire manufacturing sector. Only a handful of work places where Trade Unions established have safeguarded workers health and safety. This is why Employers hate unions. The Trade Union is the only institution that can provide solutions to the problems faced by the employees of an organization. This is because the Trade Union Ordinance provides legal protection to Trade Unions and its officials. Managers can’t take any punitive action against Union official who present and discuss employee’s issues with the Management. The unions have the legal right to take any concerted action, including strike actions, if workers’ issues could not be resolved through negotiations. This is why employers are willing to negotiate with employees’ councils and other non-union organizations. This is because there is no legal impediment for the management to take action against a member of the employee councils or any other non-union organization which brings up such issues.

It is the duty of the Trade Unions to monitor whether the Managements are acting in accordance with the laws of the land. It is the responsibility of the trade unions to look after not only the financial benefits such as salaries and leave of the employees, but also about the harm caused to the society and the environment by an organization.

.In such a situation, the duty of the workers who are victims of illegal actions of Managements should now join hands with others to form trade unions without fearing to the pressure of the Managements and their henchmen. This will prevent Managers from pickpocketing wages and forcing workers to work harder. The unions do not take contracts to resolve workers issues. Workers issues could not be solved by contractors. The person who suffer from a question should present the question him/herself. If workers come forward, unions can provide guidance and leadership.

All manpower workers need to organize around a union at this point. Their reluctance to stay in a permanent job allows Companies to make higher profits and allow workers exploited. During the epidemic, manpower workers had to beg for food parcels and dry rations because of their reluctance to confirm in their job. Every employee should join a campaign to force management to make contract workers permanent. Also, the government should be forced to take steps to ban the use of contract employees for permanent duties in institutions. It is important for working people to understand that such rules cannot be passed by sending employers’ representatives to the Parliament.

Wijepala Weerakoon