ECONOMYNEXT – Employees of Sri Lanka’s Central Bank have joined a week-long “black protest” campaign organised by state sector unions against a sharp hike in personal income tax, even as Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said painful measures were needed for the country to recover from its worst currency crisis in decades.
President of the Central Bank Executive Association Jayadu Perera told EconomyNext on Friday January 26 that while the protesting CBSL staff were not opposed to paying taxes, they take issue with the unprecedented increase which came into effect in the new year.
Perera claimed that the tax he paid in December had increased six-seven fold.
“This is true for most public servants, and we cannot bear this burden,” he said.
“This is a very unfair tax since it is the professionals of this country that make all the sacrifices,” he added.
Perera complained that Sri Lanka’s ruling class maintain high living standards and enjoy all the luxuries while subjecting workers like him to an “extremely unfair and unjust” tax.
Opposition to Sri Lanka’s newly increased direct taxes has been rising, with a number of unions and professional associations taking to the streets demanding that the decision is reversed.
The government, however, defends the tax hike arguing that it is strapped for cash as Sri Lanka, still far from a complete recovery, is struggling to make even the most basic payments, to say nothing of the billions needed for public sector salaries.
Economists say Sri Lanka’s bloated public service is a burden for taxpayers in the best of times, and under the present circumstances, it is getting harder and harder to pay salaries and benefits.
Defenders of the tax hike say that the road to recovery is a painful one, and Central Bank chief Weerasinghe, meanwhile, told reporters at the monthly monetary policy review on Wednesday January 25 that the country would have to take certain painful measures to come out of the crisis.
Asked about the trade union action organised by his staff – with most employees dressed in black – Weerasinghe joked that he too was in black but said in a more serious vein that at CBSL, anyone was free to exercise their democratic right to protest.
He also stressed that taxation is not under the purview of the Central Bank whose primary obligation is monetary policy.
The CBSL staff, however, continues to protest.
“This tax increase was implemented without any discussion with workers who are the victims of this policy,” claimed Perera.
Acknowledging the country’s dire financial straits, he said: “But why must only the professionals make sacrifices? Why not the politicians?”
Another worker who did not wish to be named claimed that he was left with just 10,000 rupees after tax.
“This an intolerable burden laid upon our heads. We will continue this protest until they give us relief. Today we did it during the lunch break. In the future we will do more,” he said.
Other workers who shared these sentiments told EconomyNext that most of them have debt obligations of their own and once they have settled loans, interest and other bills, a large income tax is the last straw.
“We have our own personal commitments. All we say is that taxation should be fair, transparent and equitable. Show us the rulers that are being taxed the same way,” said one CBSL worker.
Sri Lanka’s new tax regime has both its defenders and detractors. Critics who are opposed to progressive taxation said it serves as a disincentive to industry and capital which can be invested in business. They argue that a flat rate of taxation is implemented where everyone is taxed at the same rate.
Others, however, contend that the new taxes only affect some 10-12 percent of the population and, given the country’s economic situation, is necessary, if not vital.
Critics of the protesting workers argue that most of the workers earn high salaries that most ordinary people can only dream of, and though there may be some cases where breadwinners could be taxed more equitably, overall, Sri Lanka’s tax rates remain low and are not unfair. (Colombo/Jan26/2023)