Sri Lankan health workers begin indefinite pay strike – defying five-year jail threat for taking strike action!

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March in Colombo of the Western Province Federation for Health Professionals to the Sri Lankan Health Ministry

Sri Lankan health workers launched an indefinite pay strike on Monday, 7th February, protesting against the government’s failure to address salary and other issues.

The indefinite action follows a one-day strike on January 26 and other mobilisations in the preceding months.

Health workers in Sri Lanka have been participating in intensive industrial action over the past three months.

Their major demands include the rectification of salary anomalies, higher allowances for transport and on-call duties from 3,000 Rupees (USD 15) to 10,000 Rupees (USD 49.25), and an increase in overtime rates.

The protests, which began in November were called by the Federation for Health Professionals (FHP), an alliance of 15 health workers’ trade unions.

In October last year, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced a new government edict, banning strikes by employees related to essential services.

This was after many public services employees, nurses in particular, went on strike to protest against poor working conditions.

According to these new rules, they could face two to five years imprisonment, fines, and possibly lose their professional credentials for taking part in such actions.

In the run-up to the strike on January 26, FHP chairman Ravi Kumudesh said that the ongoing trade union action is a result of the non-intervention of state authorities to resolve issues pertaining to salary anomalies in supplementary medical services, paramedical services and nursing services, consisting of workers who form the backbone of the health sector.

Kumudesh said: ‘We have already carried out a total of eight trade union actions at provincial level to demand solutions for the salary disparities and administrative issues in the supplementary medical service, nursing service and paramedical service.’

Health workers in nursing, complementary medical services and paramedical services, including medical laboratory scientists, had launched a similar token-strike on December 9.

On November 24 and 25, thousands of health employees, teachers, development officers and other sections of the working class held protests and strikes across Sri Lanka over the issue of unpaid salaries and worsening work conditions.

The continuing struggle by workers in Sri Lanka comes amid the failure of the Rajapaksa government’s policies to bring the island nation out of an acute economic crisis.

Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange (forex) reserves fell to USD 1.6 billion in November, triggering alarm across sectors as it severely impacted the country’s import capacity.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led the Sri Lankan economy to the worst contraction ever recorded in its history, resulting in widespread job and earnings losses.

According to the latest statistics provided by WHO, Sri Lanka has witnessed around 16,000 deaths from Covid-19 infection since January 2020.

After its foreign currency reserves dropped to USD 1.6 billion in November last year, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has snowballed at an alarming rate with acute shortage of essential commodities, food and fuel.

Sri Lanka’s accelerating economic crisis may be leading to a complete meltdown, as the country’s stocks of food and fuel are running out causing alarm across several sectors.

At present, Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt obligations due in 2022 total around USD 7 billion, including bond repayments of USD 500 million in January and USD 1 billion in July.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led the Sri Lankan economy to the worst contraction ever recorded in its history, resulting in widespread job and earnings losses.

People have registered their dissatisfaction with the government’s policies and inaction over the socio-economic situation through protests.

Farmers, public sector employees, power sector workers, doctors, students, and teachers have staged demonstrations over the past three months to demand payment of wages, salaries and basic services.

Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves fell to USD 1.6 billion in November, triggering alarm across sectors as it severely impacted the country’s import capacity.

Through a currency swap agreement signed with China in March last year, Colombo was able to raise its foreign exchange reserves to USD 3.1 billion in December, however, the situation has not improved materially on the ground.

The current crisis has taken a toll on the people, especially the working class who are faced with an acute shortage of food, record inflation at 11.1% and regular power cuts.

Farmers across several districts in Sri Lanka have been holding protests since November last year to raise their concerns over the significant crop failure that the country’s agriculture sector is currently facing.

In April 2021, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government banned the use and import of all chemical fertilisers in a bid to promote 100% organic farming in the country.

The ban was later reversed, however, the move has already impacted the yield of Maha (September to March) season in many areas.

On December 29 and 30, paddy farmers in Badulla and Anuradhapura district staged a protest demanding compensation for their crops damaged due to the lack of fertiliser as promised by the government.

According to professor Saman Dharmakeerthi at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya, the current shortage of non-durable farm products like vegetables is likely to increase as the country may see crop failure of at least 50% by the end of the Maha season in March.

He explains: ‘Despite much attention from the government, it failed to provide essential agro-chemicals and fertilisers at least to the paddy sector of Sri Lanka.

‘Hence, paddy fields are in a pathetic situation. They paid even less attention to vegetables, root crops and other field crops such as corn.’

The food crisis in Sri Lanka has affected all sections of society.

People have been lining the streets in recent months to purchase essential food items like cereals, vegetables and bread as the supply is gravely reduced.

The rising prices of necessary commodities is also due to the central bank printing money to keep interest rates low which has triggered excess credit and forex shortages.

On January 7, the president of the All Ceylon Bakery Owners Association, N K Jayawardena, told the press that the situation was dire for the bakeries.

He said: ‘The companies said they can give us as much flour as we want, but the issue is with dollars.

‘They told us that they only get 10 per cent of the dollars they need. So what are they going to do?’

Besides bread, shortage of primary raw material like paddy and vegetables has affected dependent sectors such as the restaurant industry, where both service providers and the customers are facing the brunt of the food crisis.

President Rajapaksa attempted to introduce price controlling policies in September 2021 with a price cap covering items such as sugar and rice.

However, the move pushed the country’s food stocks into the black market, further raising general prices once the price caps were removed.

Last month, the All Island Canteen Owners’ Association (AICOA) of Sri Lanka warned that more than 80% of canteens and hotels are on the verge of shutting down due to the increasing prices of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and ingredients such as vegetables and meat.

Restaurant worker Kapila Ratnayake said that the present crisis is a result of  the rapid and unbearable increase in prices of vegetables, which are the main ingredients for any preparation at restaurants.

‘Even if the price was not an issue, there is a very limited supply of vegetables and we cannot buy more than 50-60% of the amount of vegetables we used to buy,’ said Ratnayake.