Photo courtesy Projects Abroad

Speaking at a discussion forum on Tuesday (06 October) at the Mahaweli Centre on a recently authored book by Siritunge Jayasuriya titled “80 July Strike – Analytical Report” (literally translated to English) Professor Sumanasiri Liyanage said, “In a neo liberal economy in countries like ours, there is little space for workers’ struggles. Therefore, if the strike in July 1980 was not organised with that militancy at that early period, there may have not been any strike later.” This neo liberal economic model was first tried out by the “Chicago boys” in Chile, after Allende’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a bloody military coup led by General Pinochet and the second country that tried it was perhaps Sri Lanka under Jayawardne, said Prof. Liyanage. The strike was crushed within two weeks under emergency regulations, leaving well over 47,000 out of jobs and most families destitute.

Neo liberal economies change social perceptions he said. “There are no more ‘workers’. They are ’employees’ now. No more Personal Managers. They are now Human Resource Managers”. It’s not “capital” against “labour” any more in how workers are defined. It is “human capital” now, another component of “Capital” like ‘information’ and ‘ideas’.

Everything has changed from what we knew pre 1977 in a State controlled local market. Open to the world, our life styles, perceptions, values and all of it together, the social culture that gives us our identity has changed immensely and drastically. That has changed us in how we wish to now define and present ourselves to the world. This reminded me of a popular song that we loved and sang in late sixties, a song by Sidney Attygalle. Few lines in this popular song “Nangila Mallila” (Younger sisters and brothers) were,

“……පුංචි බෝනික්කලා – පාට පාට නිලා මං ගෙනාවා කරත්තේ පුරා. ….. පීනනා මාළුවෝ – මෝට සයිකල් බොහෝ හේවිසිකාරයෝ – පෝනියෝ’’

It is about a common old vendor in a banyan and sarong, a small towel wrapped round the head like a turban, who used to come down suburban lanes ringing the small bell on the handle of the cart loaded with numerous little stuff including toys. A vendor, more popular among little kids in those old days. He is now wholly forgotten, replaced by young boys in slacks, short sleeved shirt and tie, wearing a cap. They come with a huge bag full of plastic gadgets selling them house to house. They are the new “salesmen” who ring the doorbell. This young boy is doing a “job” for a company for which he is remunerated by way of commissions, unlike the old self-employed vendor. For this new youth, it is a job to live in a “consumer” world like any other, depending on the “buying power” he gains from his “job”. Being a “consumer” today is what makes everyone toil as much as possible.

Even in this consumer world, why a person has to be employed is for no other reason but to earn an income that would be enough to live a decent, healthy and a comfortable family life with cultural and social engagements for recreational and intellectual fulfilment. That is what a 08 hour working day is all about. It is about working 08 hours to earn enough to spend the next 08 hours both as a consumer and as a free social and a cultural being. The remaining 08 hours in the day is for the much needed rest to start the next day.

This is an accepted concept of what a “job” is and the ILO since 1999 has worked on a “Decent Work” agenda that was accepted at the UNGA this September to be adopted as an integral element of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The ILO’s concept of “Decent Work” sums up employment as “….opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”

This is all great and fine, if governments and the corporate sector accept human life as more than just productive labour. But in these neo liberal free market economies that is not how market dynamics mould human life. Neo liberalism since 1978 in our country created new areas of economic activity with borrowed new technology that was never experienced before. Traditional local businesses were compelled to open up for competition with freely imported products that flooded the market or put up shutters. Under such competition some diversified and survived while some collaborated with foreign capital and grew big. Most badly effected were State owned industries like ceramics, leather, paper and steel and then the textile industry. Co-operative based handloom industry that was quite basic in quality but was popular also closed up.

New areas of economic activity were based on the reversal of economic policy that promoted export oriented manufacture instead of import substitution. Along with that a new area in business that was not even possible to think of pre 1980 July strike, evolved within the new free market economy. Packaging, transport and delivery, fast and instant food processing, IT solutions and software development, BPOs, Super market chains, international schools, private medical and hospital services and even very sophisticated advertising, market promotion and event management businesses began to surface and establish with a new generation of specialised experts, professionals and skilled technicians. In short, this 35 year period after the 1980 July strike has created a totally new labour force of over 08 million in formal and informal economic activities in the private sector.

Just my curiosity, I asked a young guy in the very competitive IT industry if his working week is 35 hours. He simply laughed me off saying “I’m no port worker.” Attitudes! This new generation thinks its manual labour that can have restrictions in working hours. “Work” in dignified professional fields they believe don’t need such limitations. “Earn while you can. Never mind the hours” is now the tagline in their employment.


Wholly different to the old unionised labour force that knew what their rights and privileges were as workers, this new generation of employees have no clue and don’t even wish to have any clue as to what rights and freedoms they are legally and constitutionally entitled to. They have been robbed of that “collective” thinking and believe life is what they will have to make for themselves, individually. They have thus turned into “human atoms” in a social fabric without much thought on rights and freedoms, but “consumption” for which they would have to earn. Thus labour now is being exploited more heavily than any time in post independent history of this country with “glorified employees”. These glorified employees in especially the electronic media don’t even know they should have a “letter of appointment”. In large BPO’s the young females don’t know they cannot be kept in “night shifts” without their written consent. This new generation where ever they are employed, does not know they are entitled to all what the Sri Lankan government has ratified in ILO Conventions 87 and 98; right to join a union of their choice and the right to collective bargaining.

This is forfeiture of labour rights is accepted without any qualms by the urban middle class as the new “lifestyle” in this modern world they have to earn to live. Urban living has been reduced at high speed to what a structurally “beautified” city can provide. That city has reduced life to routine work and recreation to shopping, health walks and cafes and restaurants for outdoor eating. That beautified city lacks modern museums and easy access libraries, theatres for drama, galleries for art and creative work, big and small auditoriums for social forums, for music concerts and social events. In short, what city beautification this modern society demands has nothing for intellectual and cultural social life.

Plugged to this intellectually and culturally dried out formal sector is a very crude informal sector of 3Wheelers, private omnibus employees, trading businesses with the new brand of “salesmen”, small time bakeries and self-employed thousands who slog to have their livelihood afloat. “Life” again is living to earn.

In this intellectually and culturally devoid atomised society, “competitive advantage” is what decides life. Competitiveness in fact decides the quality of life too. “Quality” is quantified in terms of physical and material wealth and assets. Aesthetics have been reduced to market projected “glamour” with no intellect for rationality. This new lifestyle of competitive consumerism has basically made robots out of humans in urban life more than in rural Sinhala society (Tamil society during this whole period was at war for political rights and dignity). Rural Sinhala society to a considerable degree has been left out of this competitive and hyped market, as supplier of cheap labour. In present day rural Sinhala village, a family composition would be a mother in the Mid-East working as a housemaid, a daughter sweating as labour in a FTZ factory, a son in the military as a soldier while the father is a half employed agri labour who cannot keep the family together.

It is therefore necessary to ask, are employees in this new generation earning a “fair income” in a 35 hour working week that can allow “social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration” as defined by the ILO? A simple answer to it right now is a big “NO”. This leaves the question, how do we get back to a more humane society that is culturally and intellectually enlightened and lives a collective life?

I firmly believe, trade unions will have to think anew to link their “employee driven” demands to socio economic development. They should ask themselves whether they could place their demands outside national development and still expect to gain “social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration”. This raises the next question, what type of socio economic development could lift the quality of life of their membership? Trade union demands for improved wages and better working conditions also need socio economic development that can improve the quality of life outside the workplace and in society. I doubt very much, a society that pays no attention to “quality of life” in a collective world and lives with extremely hyped market competition based only on profits would agree to improve wage levels and working standards. It is this contradiction that governments and the corporate sector would play on, when trade unions put forward their demands for wage increases and service conditions. It is this contradiction the media takes up too in projecting trade union demands as anti-social.

Trade unions thus need to make sure their demands are placed within socio economic development planning that can allow all employees to have enough time for intellectual and cultural engagement with social integration. Thus for instance the demand for modern libraries and theatre halls in all cities and towns for all people to engage culturally is a demand that can easily tie up with the demand for a national living wage strictly for a 35 hour working week. The logic is to have a decent wage that allows time for intellectual and cultural life and development to provide space for such life. They could be trade union demands that society would willingly take over. Demands that would help create a new concept of what a “job” is for in an intellectually and culturally more advance society. Such combinations of demands should help create a culturally more humane individual with more space for collective thought and rational intellectual life. Help create a “job” that would be worth being employed in with “social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration”. It should be a fact in society that a “job” is no mere source of income, but a means for a culturally humane personal and social life.