The growing wave of strikes and protests by Sri Lankan workers is rapidly evolving into a political confrontation with the government of President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and the entire capitalist class.
The global crisis triggered by COVID-19 has severely impacted the Sri Lankan economy, pushing workers and the poor to fight intolerable social conditions and attacks on democratic rights imposed by the government and its corporate partners.
More than a million workers have been involved in strikes and protests since the start of this year, including hundreds of thousands of teachers, health workers and other public sector employees, as well as workers plantations. These social unrest has intensified across the country in recent weeks.
- On December 8, more than half a million public sector workers staged a one-day strike while tens of thousands of public sector health workers launched a series of provincial-level protests for time off of a day’s illness. Their main demands were for higher wages and better working conditions.
On the same day, more than 500 workers from the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), ports and oil companies jointly demonstrated in central Colombo to protest against measures taken by the government to privatize these companies.
- On December 13, around 10,000 workers from 12 tea estates owned by Agarapatana Plantation Company went on strike for a week to oppose increased workloads and lower wages.
- On December 14, around 16,000 postal workers staged a one-day nationwide strike.
Along with this industrial action, tens of thousands of poor peasants are maintaining protests that began in August to demand fertilizers and other agricultural subsidies.
The scale of the industrial action this year and the number of protests have not been seen since the betrayal of the general strike of public sector employees by the unions in July 1980.
This year’s strikes and protests have united workers of all Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim ethnicities, underscoring a common class determination to defend living standards and social conditions.
These struggles, and their betrayal by the unions, however, make it clear that activism alone is not enough. Workers can only defend their rights by mobilizing independently on a socialist program. The unions, linked to the capitalist system and to the state, oppose such a struggle and do everything to prevent it.
Unions have been forced to call for collective action this year in response to popular anger over the pandemic health crisis, food shortages, soaring costs of basic necessities and government austerity measures . The unions quickly betrayed the strikes, negotiating rotten deals with the government or big business.
On July 12, more than 250,000 educators began the 100-day strike as part of their decades-long demand for higher wages. The government has categorically rejected any salary increase.
Teachers’ and principals’ unions, including the Ceylon Teachers Union and the Ceylon Teacher Services Union, have called for various protests to deflect teachers’ anger. They then struck a deal with the government, ending the strike and accepting only a third of the originally requested pay rise, an increase that has yet to be implemented. Unions also accepted the dangerous reopening of COVID-19 schools from October 21.
This year, health workers took part in at least 30 strikes and protests called separately by unions or as part of the Collective of Health Workers. In June, the union collective accepted meager compensation from the government and agreed to postpone a much-requested pay rise.
The Sri Lanka Federation of Civil Servants’ Unions, which called a one-day national strike on December 8, initially wanted a monthly pay rise of Rs 18,000. But he told President Rajapakse that “given the government crisis” he would reduce his salary demand to just 10,000 rupees. Minister of Finance Secretary SR Attygala categorically rejected the union’s new demand, saying the Treasury had no money.
Likewise, private sector unions have supported wage and job cuts and demands for high productivity from large plantation companies and free trade zone companies.
All of these unions have facilitated the continued imposition of the economic crisis by the Rajapakse government on the workers. Slavishly calling on government and big business, unions promote the illusion that workers can pressure government and force them to raise wages, improve conditions and stop privatization.
However, the government is facing an unprecedented economic crisis and has no room for compromise. The growth rate last year fell to minus 3.6%, foreign exchange reserves fell this month to about $ 1.6 billion and the government is on the verge of defaulting on foreign loans.
Finance Minister Basil Rajapakse recently warned of a currency shortage for next year, but reassured the public that the government would not allow “famine” in the country. In reality, mass starvation is around the corner in Sri Lanka and many are already hungry. These worsening conditions are part of the global crisis of capitalism with no national solution for any country.
The Rajapakse regime is doing all it can to get big companies and investors to increase their profits, while assuring international financiers that it will maintain the repayment of its huge foreign debts.
In October, the Rajapakse government began to remove price controls, sparking inflation. The price index hit 9.9% in November, measured on an annual basis, the highest in 12 years. In contrast to these brutal social attacks, the government has granted large corporations and foreign investors deep tax cuts and other concessions. Listed companies raked in a combined profit of Rs 292 billion in the first nine months of this year, breaking all historical records.
The whole government policy is that people’s lives are expendable. This is seen in its criminally negligent response to the pandemic which has resulted in nearly 15,000 deaths from COVID-19 and more than 577,000 infections, even according to grossly underestimated official figures.
The Omicron variant, which is raging in the US, UK, Europe, Australia and other countries, is now in Sri Lanka. Colombo has completely ignored the highly infectious variant and continues its murderous policy of “living with the virus”.
The reaction of the Rajapakse government to the growing activism of the working class and the rural poor is to use the unions to derail these struggles, while quickly preparing for a brutal state repression.
This preparation includes the imposition of the draconian essential public service law, which covers around one million state employees and prohibits strikes and other industrial action with heavy fines and long prison terms. None of the unions opposed this draconian law.
Earlier this month, amid the worsening political and economic crisis, President Rajapakse suddenly prorogued parliament from December 12 to January 18. Day-to-day supported the decision, saying it would allow the president to “take stock to better reflect the current and emerging economic scenario and articulate concrete measures … [for] greater stability. The “greater stability” demanded by the ruling elite is for the ruthless repression of the working class.
Throughout his presidency, Rajapakse intensified the militarization of his administration. Colombo insists it has “no money” for wage increases, public health and education or fertilizer subsidies for farmers, while generously increasing defense spending.
At the same time, unions and pseudo-left groups continue their efforts to bind workers to bourgeois opposition parties, such as Samagi Jana Balawegaya and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, arguing that a “wider front” is needed to put pressure on the government.
These parties, which have long suppressed the rights of workers and the poor, have no fundamental differences with the Rajapakse regime and would implement similar austerity measures if they were in power.
The working class faces enormous dangers and must take political issues into their own hands.
First, workers urgently need to build action committees, independent of trade unions and with their own democratically elected representatives, in order to advance their struggles.
Second, the workers must break with all factions of the bourgeoisie and their pseudo-left supporters, and build a movement to advance a political struggle against the Rajapakse regime and the capitalist profit system.
All foreign loans must be repudiated. The economy must be reorganized from the ground up to serve the needs of the majority, not the profit interests of the few. All the big companies, plantations and banks should be nationalized and brought under the democratic control of the working class.
To implement this agenda, workers must rally the rural poor and fight for workers ‘and peasants’ government, as part of the larger struggle for international socialism. Such a fight can only be fought by uniting with the international working class. There is no national solution. The source of the attack on workers in all countries is the crisis of global capitalism exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
To organize this international struggle, the action committees must join the International Alliance of Grassroots Committee Workers launched by the International Committee of the Fourth International. This is the perspective of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP). We urge you to study our agenda and join us in this fight.