By Kavya Chandrasiri (News and Media Team 2021)

Shaped like a teardrop and studded with towering trees, Sri Lanka is a land of familiarity. Even if you’ve been living in the country for barely six months and have yet to memorize the complicated road names or if you’ve been blessed to call the island home for your whole life, everyone knows there are certain distinguishable features of Sri Lanka. Features that act as pre-existing rafters of the nation’s foundation and whilst some of them are enjoyable, others are decidedly not.

“Strikes” is an overly familiar word in a Sri Lankan’s vocabulary, constantly appearing in newspaper headings and cropping up in casual conversations over steaming tea and bunnies. Whilst the Trade Union Ordinance’s definition for a strike is “the cessation of work by a body of persons employed in any trade or industry acting in combination, or concerted refusal, or a refusal under a common understanding of any number of persons who are, or have been so employed, to continue to work or to accept employment”, Sri Lankans interpret strikes differently. For some, it looks like having to take a longer route in the morning to avoid the congested streets of people with posters. For others, it looks like seizing independence, demanding better wages and retirement benefits.

Despite being a rare occasion in the country’s past, the Covid-19 pandemic has only added fuel to the already blazing fire and strikes are becoming a frequent occurrence. The steadily increasing frequency of strikes in Sri Lanka has brought about public fury as employees, mostly based in the public sector, have resorted to this method in order to make claims as well as demand for their rights and interest. Strikes have become the employee’s most valued weapon in the constant war for better wages, working hours and working conditions, giving them bargaining power and becoming a significant tool of economic coercion. In the past year, the country has witnessed the constant exploitation of this tool by the employees to make claims and demands for their rights and interests.

Strikes are not limited to a single sector or industry. There never seems to not be a month where hospital workers and nurses are not launching strikes at government hospitals nationwide, causing severe disruptions regarding medical services. A 48-hour strike was launched on July 1st of this year and organizers claimed its origin was aimed at demanding improved pay and benefits amidst the increased workloads as a result of the pandemic. The strike was followed by union leaders warning that they may launch an indefinite nationwide strike from July 7th if their wishes go unfulfilled.

An alliance of school teachers and principal trade unions are expected to resume duties on the 25th of October after being on strike for over three months demanding higher pay. Despite principals and teachers going to schools on October 25th and restarting the education process, normalcy has still not returned. Unions confirmed that the struggle will not end. “Even after resuming teaching, we will continue our strike [by not engaging in non-academic work such as overseeing extracurricular activities],” said leaders of the Union.

The question that ultimately arises is debating on why these strikes occur. There have been countless strikes that have taken place in the country, but the two examples that have been mentioned each have the demand of increased wages in common. As hospitals experience an influx of patients due to the pandemic, hospital staff have begun demanding that the government resolve what they say is a salary “injustice. This is not a recent problem; two years ago, the government gave a usually high salary increase to legal officers in the government sector. Similarly, school teachers and principals are urging the government to resolve the long-lasting salary anomalies in the two services.

 Another feature of the nation that makes Sri Lanka a land of familiarity is the government’s increasing affiliation with corruption. Petty corruption remains a prevalent problem in the country, rotating around hush money and secrets. Corruption prevention is a necessity and whistleblower protection aims to enforce it by encouraging employees to report wrongdoing and protecting them when they do. However, weak whistleblower protections in Sri Lanka have negative impacts on a citizen’s willingness to stand up against corruption and need to be improved.

As the Sri Lankan government continues to make corruption a thriving practice, restricting the public and private sector employees from being granted well-deserved increases in wages by using the taxpayers’ money for their own lavish benefits, strikes will remain a frequent for the foreseeable future.

 Session XIV of SLMUN will be held on the 3rd and 4th of December 2021 at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), Colombo, Sri Lanka. Registrations for delegates, admins and IPC delegates are now open until the 10th November 2021.

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