Sri Lankan president imposes essential services strike ban on health and electricity workers

On Friday evening, Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapakse issued an extraordinary gazette declaring health and electricity to be essential services and banning workers from striking in these industries.

The immediate aim of the proclamation of the Essential Public Services Act (EPSA) is to quell an ongoing indefinite strike by more than 65,000 healthcare workers, including nurses, paramedics, public health inspectors , medical laboratory technologists and pharmacists. The national walkout began last Monday and was called by the Federation of Health Professionals (FHP), an alliance of 18 unions.

Health workers march in Nuwara Eliya, February 11, 2022 [Image: Facebook]

It is also directed against the 26,000 employees of the Ceylon Electricity Board who oppose government moves to privatize the sector. Colombo has decided to sell a 40% stake in the Kerawalapitiya power station to the American company New Fortress Energy Company.

The president’s statement came as the nurses defied a court injunction over their involvement in the nationwide strike by health care workers. On Thursday, the Colombo District Court issued an order against Government Nursing Officers Association (GNOA) leader Saman Rathnapriya to immediately “suspend” the union’s participation. Thousands of nurses, however, defied the order and in different parts of the country continued their industrial action on Friday and Saturday with their colleagues.

Rajapakse’s proclamation said health and electricity were “essential to the life of the community” and “liable to be hindered or interrupted”. It specifically targeted nurses, stating: “Any service, work or labour, of whatever nature, necessary or to be performed in connection with the maintenance, reception, care, feeding and the treatment of patients in hospitals, nursing homes, dispensaries and other similar institutions. The vague wording, of course, allows it to be used against other striking healthcare workers.

Under the ESPA laws, any employee of these designated institutions who fails to report for work faces “conviction, after summary trial before a magistrate” and “liable to rigorous imprisonment” of two five years and/or a fine of Rs 2,000 to 5,000. ($US11-$US25) or both. The “movable and immovable property” of convicts can be seized by the State and their name “cancelled from any register kept for profession or vocation”.

It is also an offense for anyone to “incite, induce or encourage any other person” not to report for work by “a physical act or by speech or writing”. Indeed, those who defend the democratic rights of targeted workers can be punished in the same way.

Last May, the Rajapakse government used ESPA to break a strike by development workers. In June, the law was extended to cover major state institutions including health, ports, electricity, oil, post, banks and some state administration offices in response to strikes and demonstrations in these sectors.

While the law was extended for several months, the government did not immediately enforce it, fearing a backlash from workers. With the help of the unions who betrayed these struggles, the government dropped the proclamation. None of the unions, including those in the health services, have called for the withdrawal of this repressive law.

Rajapakse’s latest proclamation is not to provide essential services to the masses, but to suppress workers’ legitimate demand for decent wages and working conditions amid the country’s deepening economic crisis which has been heavily aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like the ruling classes internationally, the Rajapakse government has responded to COVID-19 by prioritizing big business profits over human lives. As Omicron now sweeps across Sri Lanka, the government is undermining or removing public health measures needed to prevent the spread of the highly infectious variant. Testing and tracing has been kept to a minimum and those infected are being directed to ‘home quarantine’.

The pandemic has created a desperate economic crisis for Sri Lankan capitalism. The country is on the verge of defaulting on its external debt and faces worsening social unrest, with many people going hungry due to widespread shortages of basic necessities. A measure of this crisis is indicated by the planned visit of Finance Minister Basil Rajapakse to India in the next fortnight to sign a billion dollar loan agreement for the immediate importation of food and medicine from that country.

The Rajapakse government is determined to impose the burden of this economic crisis on the masses. Yesterday, Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told a meeting that health workers’ demands could not be met and ruled out any negotiations with unions.

The Rajapakse regime has been shaken by the defiance of health workers and their action continues. On Thursday, non-academic staff resigned over wages and working conditions and the following day hundreds of private sector workers demonstrated in different parts of the island against the government’s move to impose a tax on the added value to employee provident (retirement) funds.

As nurses and other health workers demonstrated their determination to fight on, the GNOA leadership responded to the court injunction and the dictates of the Rajapakse EPSA by announcing on Saturday that the union was withdrawing from the strike immediately. .

GNOA President Saman Rathnapriya said his union “respects the justice system” and that the union would join the fight as soon as the court injunction is withdrawn. Yesterday he said the union would challenge ESPA in ‘international courts’.

FHP leader Ravi Kumudesh told another press conference that other health unions would remain on strike, but insisted the government could resolve the demands of health unions when talks.

Ravi Kumudesh, leader of the Federation of Health Professionals [Image: Facebook]

The leader of the Union of Public Health Inspectors, Upul Rohana, said that if these problems could not be solved in Sri Lanka, the unions would go to the “international”, i.e. the Council of United Nations Human Rights and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Since the start of the health workers’ strike and protests last year, the FHP and its respective unions have peddled the political fantasy that Colombo could come under pressure to accede to workers’ demands. These claims are fundamentally false and designed to disarm and politically entrap workers in the face of escalating government attacks.

The unions’ insistence on defending the right to strike by addressing themselves “internationally”, ie to human rights organizations and the ILO, is more illusory. These international institutions serve the interests of the financial oligarchy and are totally hostile to the international working class. Health and energy workers can only defend their democratic rights by reaching out to the working class in Sri Lanka and around the world.

Unions vehemently oppose this prospect and are working desperately behind the scenes to end the strike by health care workers. The pro-government Public Service Nurses Union and the All Ceylon Health Workers Union, which is controlled by the opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, opposed the strike and remained in office. Not a single Sri Lankan trade union has denounced President Rajapakse’s use of essential services laws against healthcare workers.

Kandy hospital workers march towards the city on February 13, 2022 [Photo: WSWS Media]

In class solidarity with the Rajapakse government, opposition parliamentary parties including the United National Party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the JVP and the Tamil National Alliance have been silent on the government action. Whether or not they are in government, these parties have either used the ESPA measures against workers or supported their implementation.

The Socialist Equality Party in Sri Lanka demands the immediate withdrawal of the draconian ESPA laws and urges the working class to immediately mobilize its industrial and political might to defend all health workers and defeat the government’s anti-democratic onslaught.

The latest attack by the Rajapakse government, and the cowardly capitulation of the trade unions, underlines the urgency and the need for workers to organize independently to defend their democratic and social rights. This requires building action committees independent of the entire trade union apparatus, to fight for a unified struggle of the entire working class and in alliance with international class brothers and sisters on a socialist program.

Michelle J. Kelley