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Sri Lanka

Labor Relations

The labor movement was large and politically active in the 1980s, although it suffered a loss of influence after 1977. Urban strikes began in the 1890s and increased in number after World War I. The first major labor organization, the Ceylon Labour Union, was formed in 1922. In the 1930s, the legislature passed a series of laws, including the Trade Union Ordinance of 1935, to regulate the unions. This law made it mandatory for trade unions to register with the government and to keep political and labor funds separate. After World War II, the unions represented a large proportion of the labor force, especially in Colombo and on the large plantations. The leadership of nearly all trade unions has come from the English-educated elite.

Union membership in 1988 was subject to fluctuations because of competition among unions affiliated with different political parties and because of personal rivalries among union leaders, as well as a fairly rapid turnover of unions. The unions have traditionally been strong in the state sector, especially rail and road transport, the ports, and the government clerical service. In 1983 observers estimated that about 1.8 million workers, or just under one-third of the gainfully employed labor force, were union members. Membership was fragmented into over 1,000 unions. Many of the unorganized workers were small farmers and rural laborers.

Before 1977 many unions were affiliated with the Marxist parties, especially the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja (Ceylon Equal Society Party), but in the late 1970s and early 1980s the influence of the Jatika Sevaka Sangamaya (National Employees' Union), which was affiliated with the ruling UNP, increased greatly, and it became the single largest trade union. This organization was especially strong in the state sector, and it had a reputation for intimidation, violence, and discrimination against Tamils. Another important trade union was the Ceylon Workers' Congress, which represented a large proportion of the Indian Tamil estate workers. After 1977 it was politically allied with the government, but it nonetheless used the political turmoil after 1983 to bargain for better working conditions.

Labor disputes were arbitrated through a variety of state agencies, but these agencies have not prevented frequent and costly strikes. Plantation strikes have been most common, involving as many as 477,000 workers (in 1949) and as many as 1.12 million lost workdays (in 1966). In the remainder of the private sector, the most turbulent period was in 1962 and 1963, when over 1.28 million workdays were lost by strikes. In 1970 new highs were reached, with 143 strikes and the loss of 1.31 million workdays. In the mid-1970s, when many trade unions pledged not to strike in return for substantial concessions, the number of nonplantation strikes fell dramatically, although plantation strikes increased. Since 1977 the unions in the nonplantation sectors have been in apparent decline, in part because of changes in the nature of the work force. Most employees of the new textile factories in the free trade zone were young, unmarried women doing shift work, who did not expect to be employed there for more than a few years and who were little interested in joining a union. Similarly, employees in the import and tourist industries, sectors that grew in the years after 1977, had not been successfully organized.

Data as of October 1988