Sri Lankan workers discuss the fight for a democratic and socialist congress

In line with International Monetary Fund (IMF) dictates, President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government is accelerating its moves to privatise state-owned enterprises in Sri Lanka.

The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) has responded by stepping up the struggle for workers to build their own action committees and the holding of a Democratic and Socialist Congress of Workers and Rural Masses to combat the government’s attacks on jobs and social rights.

Colombo harbour workers marching on 20 April 2022

The SEP’s call for the Congress is to provide a political focus for the widespread opposition among working people revealed by months of mass protests and strikes against rampant inflation and severe shortages. The popular uprising forced Gotabhaya Rajapakse to flee the country and resign as president, but the Wickremesinghe government, with the backing of the entire political establishment, is implementing the same IMF austerity agenda.

In recent weeks, campaigners have distributed SEP statements and held discussions with Colombo harbour and irrigation department workers. The statements distributed include, “Reject All-Party Regime! No to IMF Austerity! Fight to build Democratic and Socialist Congress of Workers and Rural Masses!” and “Release the Students Detained under Anti-terror laws!” as well as the WSWS article “JVP attempts to revive myths on parliamentary democracy.”

The strategically-located Colombo harbour, which is owned by Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), is a key target in the government’s privatisation drive. Much of the harbour has already been opened up to foreign investors, including from India and China.

Speaking with SEP campaigners, a worker from the tugboat section said: “I’ve worked here for decades. Due to the betrayals of the trade unions, most of the sections here have already been assigned to the private sector. The rest of it is also about to be privatised.

“Senior managers are already not filling vacancies when employees retire on reaching 60 and there are many workers due to retire this year. Sometimes retired workers are reemployed on a contract basis in order to have the work done at a lower cost. The government is getting ready to fully implement the IMF’s program in the harbour.”

The tugboat worker told SEP campaigners that he had previously been connected with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) but left the organisation because of its pro-capitalist polices, citing in particular a recent meeting between the US ambassador in Colombo and the JVP leaders.

He said that the All-Ceylon General Port Workers Union, which is controlled by the JVP, in alliance with other trade unions, confined workers’ struggles to appealing to the government to halt privatisation. This has become futile, he said, “and privatisation goes on.”

Colombo harbour workers protest against privatisation on 2 February, 2017 [AP Photo]

SEP campaigners explained the party’s call for a Democratic and Socialist Congress of Workers and Rural Masses based on workers’ action committees and why it was necessary to fight for this perspective.

“I see this as an important proposal to mobilise the working class with a socialist program against the pro-capitalist program of the trade unions,” the tugboat department worker said.

Nishantha, a technical worker, said: “The cost of living has increased since January but our wages stagnate. We want a solution. Either bring down the prices of goods or give us a suitable salary, at least solve one of these issues. Workers everywhere face the same problems.”

SEP members explained the necessity for workers to develop action committees and fight for a unified movement of the working class. Nishantha pointed out that the port unions had established a front with the telecom and petroleum unions but that this was not real working-class unity.

“The unions hold discussions with the authorities and the government, take decisions, and then impose them on us. They don’t consult with the rank-and-file membership. It’s important we build our own action committees so workers can discuss their problems and take decisions,” he said.

A Jaya Container Terminal worker agreed with the SEP’s calls for the building of an action committee at the harbour and said this should be expedited. The harbour trade unions, he said, covered up the major issues facing the workers, including privatisation, job cuts and inflation.

“I agree with the points you made. Workers should organise action committees independent of the trade unions and all the capitalist parties. This is a crisis of the capitalist system based on private profit.

“I appreciate the efforts of the World Socialist Web Site to organise workers around the world. I support your campaign and would like to join the struggle to build an action committee in the port,” he said.

A South Asia Gateway Terminal casual employee joined the discussion. “We work as casual workers. I’ve been here for two years and am still not permanent. It’s extremely difficult to live with the current salary and we’ve called on the human rights office to increase our wages. Government workers at least demonstrate. We do not even have trade unions,” he said.

S. Arul, another worker, said: “I’m a clerk at an institute related to the harbour. My company now has less work due to the limited imports. I now only receive half my previous wage but the cost of living has more than tripled. I was previously able to manage my family’s expenses with some difficulties but it’s now totally impossible.”

Arul participated in the mass protests which began in April over the rampant inflation, shortages of essentials and power cuts, and to demand former President Rajapakse and his government resign.

“Rajapakse was chased away and now we have President Wickremesinghe but with every party agreeing to seek help from the IMF,” he said. “As you say, the masses will suffer even more if the IMF conditions are implemented. I agree with a program to unite the workers internationally with an independent program for workers.”

Shanmugarajah, a small trader near the harbour, also spoke with SEP campaigners.

“I read the third leaflet from your party, after protests across the country began. I see here that you are completely different from all the other [parties]. I earn some income in order for my family to live by bringing in items from India and selling them here. The increased currency rates and the current price of air tickets have impoverished my income,” he said.

“I’ve voted for several parties,” he continued, “but it doesn’t matter who comes to power, our lives keep going down.”

The Galle Face Green protesters demanded Rajapakse’s ouster, he said. “[They] talked about a system change but did not make clear what it was, and how it could be done. I understand it could happen under socialism and thank all of you for your attempts to make ordinary people conscious. I agree with your proposals,” he said.

SEP members also campaigned at the housing accommodation for irrigation department employees in Ratmalana, on the outskirts of Colombo. This neighborhood consists of over 200 homes.

Sumith, an irrigation worker from the Engineering Geology Department, said: “All the irrigation department projects have been stopped. We are not paid any allowances for overtime and so it’s impossible to live on the meagre 30–40,000-rupee salary we receive, after loan installments are deducted.

“We thought that we could win through the mass uprising at the Galle Face but we’ve not got any relief, even though President Rajapakse was removed. I supported these agitations whenever possible but now we have to think about how we can move forward,” he said.

Piyasiri, an irrigation worker from the mechanical section, said he had voted for Rajapakse’s ruling party in the last general election but was now angry and regretted this decision.

“We cannot live on our monthly salary and so employees in the irrigation department are frustrated. We were involved in the protests but the people have not got answers to their problems,” he said.

“All the parties agree to get an IMF loan amount but no one is talking about the harsh conditions that will be imposed,” he continued, then asked how to build a workers’ action committee.

Campaigners said that the action committees—unlike trade unions which are regulated by state laws—are elected democratically by workers, and fight for their interests. The trade unions, they continued, are formed according to grades and divide workers. The action committees reject such divisions and fight to unite workers and mobilise their power across all industries and nationally, and internationally through the International Workers’ Alliance.

Manuvarna, an Irrigation Department driver said: “They [the government and its lackeys] claim that the root cause of all problems is because government employees are not working but we are working over eight hours a day. The government and the media are slandering state workers.

“It is very difficult to live now. Children have no education and there’s no way to provide proper food for our children with our meagre salaries. It’s hard to imagine how to get out of this mess but what we see is that the trade unions are on the side of the rulers. The union officials are only interested in their own privileges, not the needs of the workers.”