A timely request | Daily News

A timely request

This week, we have seen a number of strikes by various groups that severely affected the public. Doctors struck work apparently in protest against the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Singapore while railway workers staged a strike over a salary anomaly. Other trade unions are also reported to be planning strikes over various issues.

While the Government is the presumed target of these wildcat strikes, the pithy Sinhala saying Vidde hawata, vedune pandurata (Arrow aimed at hare, but struck the bush) amply illustrates what actually happens - by trying to put pressure on the Government, the strikers really hurt the public – especially the Middle Class and the poor. When the doctors strike, the rich do not care – they can simply walk into the nearest private hospital. On the other hand, poor patients who have no money to spend on private hospitals have to go home empty handed, after having waited for hours in deserted Government hospitals for doctors to turn up. When railway workers strike, the rich do not care. They just use the car anyway. Again, it is the common masses who suffer as they have no other mode of transport, the bus service being minimal in some areas.

These are the same sentiments expressed by President Maithripala Sirisena on Thursday, when he stated that those who strike to win over their rights should also think about the rights of the public in a humane manner. It is not the government but the innocent public that is inconvenienced by these strikes, President Sirisena rightly said. The President stressed that it was the innocent poor rather than the wealthy that mostly benefit by public transport and free health services. As the President noted, the striking railway workers should at least have thought about the students sitting for the GCE A/L examination who have been severely inconvenienced.

It is obvious beyond any doubt that strikers are exploiting the prevailing atmosphere of freedom sans fear and suspicion to organise strikes at will. During the previous regime, just one telephone call from a much-feared and powerful official ensured that strikes were never even thought of and if they did begin by any chance, the fear of the “white van” stopped them from proceeding any further. And we all know how blood was spilled during several strikes and demonstrations in Katunayake, Rathupaswala and elsewhere.

This was exactly the main thrust of the President’s appeal to all trade unions - unlike during the past regime, the present Good Governance Government had never used guns or bayonets against strikers or protestors. In fact, there have been no fatalities or even serious injuries at any demonstration held after January 2015. However, as Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne said recently, this adherence to democratic principles should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

The President pointed out an alternative path for all strikes – discussions and negotiations. He requested railway employees, doctors and other professional groups planning strikes to try and resolve their problems in an intelligent and humane manner without inconveniencing the public. There have been many calls over the years to make health and transport essential services and to outlaw strikes in these sectors. It is time the Government seriously looked at this proposal.

We should remember that there are certain categories of Government employees who can never strike even if they want to – mainly the personnel of the Armed Forces and the Police. They are Government Servants who have sacrificed their life and limb to ensure a brighter future for the rest of the population, without any complaints. Some of them still serve in very remote, harsh areas amidst limited facilities. But do they ever complain? No.

We should also keep in mind that there are thousands of people among us who do not have any form of employment. Those who strike over higher pay and other issues should ponder for a moment on the fact that there are many who do not have a job at all. Indeed, Government Servants must always think of their responsibilities and duties towards the public. As the President emphasized, dedication, contribution and honesty on the part of all sections of society are essential to usher in a national re-awakening.

There is also a new trend where trade unions strike over issues that should not concern them at all. The GMOA is striking over the Singapore-Sri Lanka FTA, but a question arises as to the doctors’ qualifications to comment and decide on this issue. They are not experts in economics or foreign policy after all. Earlier, a transport union launched a strike over the issue of SAITM – again, that union had no expertise in the area of education. Stern action should be taken against unions that try to meddle in Government policy on matters outside their purview or expertise.

Frequent strikes give our country a band name and drive away potential investors. They adversely affect the economy and severely inconvenience the public. The authorities must deal firmly with striking unions without descending to the dark depths of 2005-2014 to minimize the hassles faced by the public.


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