Sri Lankan trade unions back IMF austerity policy

The Sri Lankan government, with the active support of trade unions, has begun to unleash a new round of International Monetary Fund (IMF)-dictated attacks on jobs and social conditions.

On Monday, an IMF team traveled to Colombo to begin 10 days of talks with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and senior Central Bank and Treasury officials. The talks focus on Colombo’s proposals to cut public spending, step up privatization and implement other austerity measures. Debt restructuring to repay loans to foreign creditors is a major issue in the discussions.

These measures will further reduce jobs, wages and pensions as well as health and education, severely affecting millions of workers and the poor. While some unions silently support these proposals, others openly adopt these measures against the working class.

Ranil Wickremesinghe [Source: United National Party Facebook]

President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have already proposed cutting over 800,000 public sector jobs. In line with repeated IMF complaints that public sector salaries are too high, the government’s drastic downsizing aims to halve its salary expenditure by 845.7 billion rupees ($4.2 billion) in 2021.

The Ministries of Public Administration and Manpower and Human Resources have already announced how they intend to impose these cuts.

One proposal is to order state employees to apply for jobs overseas, giving them unpaid leave for five years. As well as destroying jobs, authorities believe it will generate foreign revenue for the cash-strapped government.

Sri Lanka’s Overseas Employment Bureau has revealed a record number of workers have registered, since public sector authorities announced they were ordering state employees to find jobs abroad. Another job cut proposal includes the introduction of a voluntary pension scheme, which involves meager compensation.

This week the government, citing worsening fuel shortages, issued a two-week ‘work from home’ order for most public sector employees. It follows the previous introduction of a four-day week in the public sector.

Last week, President Rajapakse proposed the decentralization of the civil service to district and regional levels, breaking up existing centralized institutions. Presented as a necessary measure to ensure “efficient service to the public”, it constitutes an additional step in the dismantling of these services.

Not a single union opposed any of these measures, let alone warned its members of the serious consequences. On the contrary, some public sector unions have started campaigning to encourage their members to seek employment abroad.

Government Nurses Union (GNOU) President Saman Rathnapriya is playing a leading role in promoting the government’s call for state employees to get jobs overseas. Rathnapriya was a former United National Party parliamentarian from Wickremesinghe.

Saman Rathnapriya, President of the Government Nurses Union (GNOU) [WSWS Media]

Rathnapriya told a press conference: “We are now preparing to send medics [overseas], which have the highest demand in the world, through a special project. Even though there is a lack of staff here [for hospitals], we do it to make dollars. We do it because we think about the country. Rathnapriya’s patriotic posturing aims to mask the fact that he is implementing one of the dictates of the IMF.

The President of the Federation of Health Professionals (FHP), Ravi Kumudesh, was even more explicit. Asked about the government program, he told the WSWS: “Instead of sending half of the state employees home, we can steer them towards employment abroad, thus obeying what the IMF asks us to do.

The reactionary responses of the GNU and the FHP come against the backdrop of a growing public health collapse caused by ongoing funding cuts by successive Sri Lankan governments, slavishly endorsed by these unions and other unions in the health sector.

According to recent figures published by the Central Bank, there is a shortage of at least 30,000 nursing staff in public hospitals. A massive outflow of nurses to jobs abroad will only hasten the closure of public hospitals and help the government reduce free public health care. The exodus of other public sector employees to jobs abroad and the consequent job cuts will produce a similar collapse of public services.

The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) does not oppose workers accepting jobs abroad. Many state employees would prefer to look for work abroad to escape the current social calamity, but this will lead to massive job cuts in the state. The working class is not responsible for this crisis of Sri Lankan capitalism and must oppose the attempts of the government and the IMF to impose this burden on the masses.

Recent government measures dictated by the IMF have pushed inflation to unprecedented levels. According to figures released yesterday, Sri Lanka’s year-on-year inflation rate for the month of May reached 45.3%. Food inflation has climbed to 58%.

These steep increases, which began last September due to soaring global inflation produced by the COVID-19 pandemic, were compounded by the US-NATO proxy war against the Russia in Ukraine.

While inflation has eaten away at workers’ wages and the meager incomes of the poor across the country, unions have done nothing to defend workers’ living standards. Like unions in every country, those in Sri Lanka are doing all they can to help the government and big business make the working class pay for this crisis.

Workers and youth demonstrate in Kandy on May 6 [WSWS Media]

When 200,000 teachers and head teachers went on an online strike and protests for higher wages last July, education union leaders met Mahinda Rajapakse, who was then prime minister. Rajapakse told them that “in the current global situation and the country’s difficult financial situation, the government is not in a position to deal with the salary issue at this time.”

Union leaders responded by assuring him that they had “a clear understanding that an immediate wage increase is not possible due to the current economic crisis” and asked the government to “take a political decision” on the issue. ‘salary increase. After 100 days on strike, the unions betrayed their members, agreeing to a pay rise of barely a third of the original demand.

Similarly, when the government refused pay demands for health workers in February, FHP leader Kumudesh told the media that its members were “professionals” and understood “the financial difficulties the country is going through”. That’s why the union, he said, “wasn’t pushing for the money at the moment” and any settlement could only be in “principle”.

In April, the unions, following the outbreak of mass protests and demonstrations demanding the resignation of President Rajapakse and his government, betrayed the two-day general strike of April 28 and May 6, called by the Coordinating Committee union and the Union Syndicale Trade unions and mass organisations.

The unions called the strike to channel the anger behind the opposition parties’ call for an interim capitalist regime. However, when millions of workers left their jobs to defend their standard of living, the unions took fright and called off new strikes.

This betrayal enabled President Rajapakse to appoint Wickremesinghe Prime Minister and impose severe austerity on the IMF.

This is why the SEP insists that the working class cannot move forward if it remains trapped inside the unions that function as industrial police for government and big business.

Workers must take control of their own struggles by creating action committees, independent of unions and capitalist parties, in every workplace, estate and major economic center.

The PES issued a series of demands, including the immediate repudiation of all foreign debt, as a way for the working class to fight for its interests. There is no solution to the immense social and economic crisis facing workers within the capitalist system. What is needed is the political struggle for a workers’ and peasants’ government and socialist policies.

The Sri Lankan workers’ ally in this struggle is the international working class which has entered into decisive struggles in the US, UK and Europe, as well as in neighboring India and Pakistan. The SEP calls on action committees in Sri Lanka to join the struggles of workers around the world through the International Alliance of Rank and File Committee Workers.

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