Videography by Amalini de Sayrah
Text by Raisa Wickrematunge

The giant hand gripping a telephone has become a landmark on Lotus Road. Just beyond it loom the offices of Sri Lanka Telecom. Look closer, though, and you will see banners. “Enough talking!” one reads. “No to Manpower plunder,” another says.

A makeshift tent has been set up. Nearby, clusters of people are gathered. These are the ‘manpower workers’ of Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) – those hired using a manpower agency called Human Capital Solutions (HCS) – a fully owned subsidiary of SLT.

                                          Screenshot from SLT’s website.

The manpower workers comprise some 2,100 out of SLT’s total workforce, and have been striking for 80 days, continuously.

SLT first began hiring contract workers from manpower agencies in the 1990s. Initially, only drivers were hired through manpower agencies. Over time, SLT also began hiring technical officers this way from around 2002. The contract workers were supposed to be hired to fill positions that were not part of SLT’s core operations.

However, the striking workers say that this is certainly no longer the case. “We all do the same job, but they [the permanent employees] get paid much more. We aren’t sent to meet customers as ‘manpower workers.’ We wear the SLT uniform. It is only in terms of salary that we are treated differently,” said D M S Rajapakshe.

It’s a vast gap – these workers only receive one-third the salary, although they do the same work. For instance, one of the striking workers tells Groundviews he receives a basic salary of Rs. 28,000. A full-time employee’s basic salary is Rs. 60,000. The full time employees also receive almost double in terms of annual bonuses and overtime, plus allowances for food, transport, medicine and housing.

Many of these ‘temporary’ workers have been working for SLT for decades – Rajapakshe for instance, has been with SLT for 12 years, starting as a driver and working his way up to the post of technical officer.

It is for this reason that the workers have been striking for so long, facing great difficulties.

“We have struggled for every increment we have. For every increase of Rs. 2,500, we have had to strike,” T K G Jayalath says. They say they began organising strikes as far back as 2006.

Hope came with the change of the Government in 2015, and promises to make the SLT contract workers part of the permanent cadre. In fact, the President, Minister of Telecommunications and Infrastructure Harin Fernando and the Prime Minister have all made promises to this effect, according to a statement released by the Solidarity Movement for Sri Lanka Telecom’s Manpower Struggle.

“Now whenever he sees us, he promises to solve the problem and doesn’t do anything. This government came into power with promises of good governance. The President’s own brother is the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom, so we had hope. Yet nothing has changed,” Jayalath says.

The strike has impacted all of the workers in different ways. “It’s difficult to find food to eat and drink… difficult even to find Rs. 50 to come by bus here and continue the strike,” Jayalath says.

Newly married, and with a baby on the way, Jayalath has had to leave his wife for long periods in order to participate in the strike. “My bank loan is in arrears… and I have no way to make the payments on time,” he says.

Others have had more violent pushback. Rajapakshe says when he requested to meet the Group CEO, Dileepa Wijesundera, the latter filed a police entry against them. “They don’t understand that we are downtrodden,” he says.

Yet the plight of these workers has remained largely un-reported in the mainstream media – and the strikers say it is because the company is a major advertiser. “SLT is a top company. They spend millions on advertising. They tell the media, ‘Don’t show the unions striking. If you give them coverage, we’ll stop placing advertisements,” Sujiva Dissanayake said.

More ominously, the Vice President of the All Ceylon Telecommunications Employees Union (ACTEU) Sujeewa Mangala was also abducted by armed men, blindfolded, and warned to give up strike action before being dropped off after two days.

None of this appears to have daunted the striking employees.

“Even to find food to eat and drink is difficult, without this job. But we are determined to see this through. We want to change this unfair system [whereby we are treated differently.], We are fed up of working in this manner” Sujiva said.

A Minister had promised to visit the striking workers on Monday (13) but the workers were still waiting on Wednesday (15).

“If we don’t get a response soon, we will fast until death,” one of the strikers vowed.

According to the tenets of commercial or corporate law, there are certain tests to define who an employer is. If the contract workers could show that the workers were under the direction and control of SLT, they could still claim they were SLT employees, even if they were employed by HCS, an attorney specializing in corporate law who requested not to be named said. “If the employees worked on [SLT’s] behalf, it could be argued that they are in fact employed by them.”

However, more firms were beginning to use third party manpower agencies as a method of cutting costs. “It’s a commercial trend to hire manpower-sourced employees. Generally they would hire crucial personnel as permanent employees and the others would be hired using these agencies,” the lawyer explained.

When contacted, Sri Lanka Telecom directed Groundviews to contact Human Capital Solutions, the manpower agency through which these workers are recruited. Founded in 2008, Human Capital Solutions CEO is P Roshan Kaluarachchi, who incidentally joined SLT as its Marketing Officer in 2010, according to their website. Kaluarachchi was not available for comment when Groundviews attempted to contact his office.

The fact that SLT directed Groundviews to contact HCS for a comment indicates that they do not consider the strikers as part of their workforce. As of today, it has been three months since any of them received their salary.