Sri Lankan oil workers strike against privatization, defying essential services laws

Ceylon Petroleum Cooperation (CPC) workers staged a protest strike against privatization on Tuesday despite threats from the Sri Lankan government to penalize them under the draconian Essential Public Services Act (EPSA).

Some 4,000 workers at various levels, including technicians, clerks, managers and engineers took part in the industrial action. As a result, all factories were paralyzed, including the Kolonnawa distribution center, the Muthurajawela storage complex and the Sapugaskanda refinery in the suburbs of Colombo. In the capital, hundreds of workers demonstrated at the roundabout near parliament.

Petroleum Corporation workers protest march in Colombo on August 22, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

However, at noon, the unions ended the protest action, giving in to threats from the government. The protest was organized to coincide with the parliamentary debate on the government’s amendment to the Petroleum Special Provisions Act, which will give private companies the right to import, store and supply petroleum.

The unions called the protest, not as a real fight against privatization and to defend the rights of CCP workers, but to derail and suppress growing worker opposition.

After dispersing the token strike within hours, union spokesman Bandula Saman Kumara said it was “not worth continuing the strike by disrupting services” as the bill “will be passed soon after. ‘one way or another in parliament’. He said the unions would “find other ways to defeat the passage of the bill in Parliament”.

This statement is false. For months, unions have called for futile protests to let workers vent, allowing the government’s plans to go ahead. They will do the same in the future.

One worker told the WSWS, “I went on strike to oppose privatization. The unions have called for several futile protests to put pressure on the government. I don’t trust these unions. To stop the privatization of public institutions, we need a united struggle of the working class. I have read the WSWS articles and agree to form workers’ action committees, independent of the unions.

An engineer said: “The government continues the privatization process, intimidating the workers. However, employees organized in government-controlled unions also participated in the protests. Union leaders deceive struggles. Workers must understand the duplicity of union leaders. We must organize to protect our rights, by abolishing the capitalist system.

The protest was called by the CPC Trade Union Collective (TUC), a combination of 11 unions, including the Petroleum General Workers Union (PGWU), Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya, Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya and Sri Lanka Progressive Union. These unions are respectively affiliated with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe is implementing the savage austerity program dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Determined to brutally suppress any worker resistance, he continues to use the EPSA declared by his predecessor Gotabhaya Rajapakse.

At present, the government has subjected electricity, oil and health services to this draconian law.

Any person or organization that violates essential services orders faces “conviction, after summary trial before a magistrate” and is “liable to rigorous imprisonment” from two to five years and/or a fine of 2,000 to 5,000 rupees (11 to 25 USD). 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”.

On Monday, Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekara said that if a union or worker interrupted CPC services, they would face prosecution under EPSA.

The CPC’s director of human resources warned that disciplinary action would be taken against workers if they gathered on CPC premises during the protest. On October 4, CCP authorities suspended Sri Lankan trade union secretary Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya, Bandara Arambekumbura, as part of this campaign of intimidation.

CPC is one of the main industries to be privatized under IMF measures. Among the companies that have expressed their willingness to enter the market are the Lanka India Oil Company (LIOC), China’s Sinopec, Petroleum Development Oman and Shell.

The government plans to divest more than half of CPC’s 1,200 service stations to these companies. These moves will lead to the privatization of all other CPC facilities, including storage and refining.

The privatization of CPC is part of a larger program dictated by the IMF as a remedy for the unprecedented economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Other so-called reforms include the privatization or “commercialization” of all state enterprises, the reduction of public education and health services, and the raising of taxes and prices to siphon money from low income people.

Wickremesinghe told Parliament on October 5: “By reducing the burden on SOEs [state-owned enterprises]we can extend [foreign] reserves by obtaining 2 to 3 billion US dollars.

The ruling class is determined to impose on the working class the burden of the global capitalist crisis that has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the US-led war in Ukraine against Russia. The Central Bank and government have temporarily defaulted on massive foreign loans and are seeking to fill government coffers to pay international loan sharks.

The TUC has called for several protests in recent months as worker opposition to privatization and the threat to jobs and working conditions has grown. On August 22, the TUC called for a protest to pressure the Minister for Electricity and Energy who had said he would not cancel the scheme. On September 20, the TUC cynically organized a prayer to a mythical god asking him to stop the government’s actions.

The political parties that control these unions fully support the IMF program. All trade unions are responsible for the Wickremesinghe government’s attacks on social rights. They oppose any independent struggle to defend workers’ rights.

Since April, millions of workers and the poor have taken part in mass struggles demanding an end to the soaring cost of living, shortages of essentials and long hours of power cuts. They forced the resignation of President Rajapakse and his government. On April 28 and May 6, millions of workers joined general strikes in support of this struggle.

However, the unions, backed by pseudo-left groups like the Frontline Socialist Party, have betrayed these struggles, hijacking them behind the demands of the opposition SJB and JVP for an interim capitalist regime.

Workers cannot stop privatization and fight for their rights through unions. They are tied to the capitalist system and therefore support placing the burden of its crisis on the backs of workers.

The CCP workers’ struggle against privatization has shown again that without a political struggle against the government and capitalism, the working class cannot defend its rights. To fight against the government’s austerity offensive at the IMF, CCP workers and all workers must establish independent action committees in every workplace and neighborhood.

Without fighting for socialist policies, however, workers and the poor cannot defend their right to decent jobs, wages and living conditions. This means the nationalization of big industries, plantations and banks under the democratic control of the working class and the repudiation of all external debts.

The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) is campaigning for a democratic and socialist congress of workers and rural workers to lay the foundations for a socialist mass movement to fight for this program. We urge workers and young people to join the SEP and its youth movement, the International Youth and Students for Social Equality, in leading this struggle.

Michelle J. Kelley