A court order to suspend the strike did not make a difference. Neither, for that matter, has a presidential gazette helped end the strike. Power utility workers now threaten to go join the striking health workers.
Striking Sri Lankan health workers continued their protest for the seventh day running, today, defying a court order and a presidential gazette and disrupting routine work in government hospitals.
Hundreds of protestors marched outside the president’s office in the heart of the commercial capital Colombo early on Monday carrying placards with slogans that demanded solutions to salary anomalies, an increase in the special duty allowance to 10,000 rupees and the establishment health administration services among seven demands.
Sri Lankan president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had on Friday declared the public health service and the supply of electricity as essential services after a series of power outages and protests inconvenienced the public.
The extraordinary presidential gazette notification issued Friday night said the declaration was being made considering the services provided by any public institution that is engaged in electricity supply and the health services are “essential to the life of the community and (are) likely to be impeded or interrupted”.
A day earlier, on Thursday, a Colombo district court had issued an order against Government Nursing Officers’ Association (GNOA) President Saman Rathnapriya, directing him to immediately “suspend” the union’s involvement in ongoing indefinite strike action by tens of thousands of health workers.
The GNOA has about 20,000 members and is one of 18 unions involved in the Federation of Health Professionals’ national strike that entered its second week today. The strike by health workers includes all streams – nurses, paramedics, public health inspectors, medical laboratory technologists and pharmacists, are on strike.
Other unions ready to join
The request for a strike suspension order was made by the Sri Lankan Attorney General (AG). State lawyers appearing for the AG told the courts that “patient care has been gravely affected by the strike.”
At a public rally last week, Rajapakse said that public servants were resorting to strikes under “the influence of various political forces,” adding, “public officials have a responsibility to serve the people and the country.”
The presidential gazette was necessitated because health workers continued their strike despite the court order, exploiting a loophole of the court ruling.
The striking employees are demanding rectification of salary anomalies, higher transport and on-call duty allowances — ranging from 3,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($US15) to 10,000 Sri Lankan rupees — increased overtime rates and improved promotion procedures.
They are also being joined by workers of the Ceylon Electricity Board, the country’s power supply utility company.
Last year strikes and struggles erupted across the island involving health, education, government administration, railway, electricity, ports, petroleum and plantations workers.
Around 26,000 university non-academic workers also held a national one-day protest to demand a salary increase.
The president has been at loggerheads with the health sector trade union workers ever since the appointment of Sri Lankan army officials to run the health services in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meanwhile, the trade union have threatened to seek justice from an international court for what they claim is the suppression of the health sector through Rajapaksa’s gazette declaring it an essential service.
“Colombo is desperate to suppress the industrial action by health employees, fearing it will encourage other sections of the working class to fight the government’s social attacks,” said Socialist trade union leader, K Ratnayake.