Sri Lankan trade unions have launched a joint campaign to demand a rise of 10,000 Sri Lankan Rupees in the monthly minimum wage of private sector employees.
Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange crisis is resulting in unavailability of bare essentials and runaway inflation. A strike by health workers has made other government employees restless. The government has, in turn, provided employees a monthly monetary allowance of 5,000 Sri Lankan Rupees to public sector employees and pensioners.
Now 12 Sri Lankan trade unions have launched a joint campaign to demand a rise of 10,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (approximately US $50) in the monthly minimum wage of private sector employees.
The government’s decision to hike wages was limited to those working for government and public undertakings. The trade unions are opposing the government’s decision to exclude private sector employees from its scheme.
Leading the campaign are the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees’ Union, the Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya and the Ceylon Mercantile Industrial and General Workers Union.
The present campaign was preceded by an island-wide protest on 21 January.
Says Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees’ Union, “Unions have resolved to convene and establish provincial and village committees of social activists across the country to mobilise citizens to demand from the government to pay 5,000 rupees as monthly allowance to all categories of workers, to increase the minimum wage of private sector employees to 26, 000 rupees and to reduce the prices of essential food items by 50 per cent.”
Anticipating the situation ahead of the budget, unions members of the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) had, in October 2021, submitted a proposal to the ministry of finance to increase the minimum wage of private sector employees to 26,000 rupees (US $129), and for a 50 per cent reduction in the price of essential goods in the 2022 budget.
But the government refused to mandate the private sector to enhance the carry-home wages or provide similar allowances to its workers. Employees in the private sector are entitled to a minimum wage of 16,000 Sri Lankan rupees (US $80) per month. The trade unions say that this stipulation needs to be revisited urgently in the light of the increased cost of living.
The unions are also campaigning with members of parliament to introduce a private member’s bill on the minimum wage in the parliament.
Following this, the cabinet instructed the minister of labour to make the necessary arrangements to pay the 5,000 Sri Lankan rupees allowance for the private sector employees. The minister of labour called a meeting with the members of the NLAC on 7 January, followed by a meeting with the employers’ associations on 10 January.
The employers had refused to pay the 5,000 rupees proposed by the unions, citing economic losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the issue of minimum wages, employers claimed that they already pay the minimum wage of 26,000 rupees.
The present campaign is also collecting pay slips from private sector employees to rebut the minimum wages claims of the employers.
Photos: Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees’ Union