Sri Lanka edges closer to blackouts after canned CEB board meeting

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is getting closer to widespread blackouts after a cancelled board meeting of state-run Ceylon Electricity Board tipped the balance of power towards workers who have downed tools, strike-breakers say.

The ongoing strike at state-run Ceylon Electricity Board was triggered by a union backed by Sri Lanka’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna who promised workers a steep increment, going beyond a 25 percent hike due in January 2018.

State-run Ceylon Electricity Board has above-market salaries for non-technical staff.

According to a statement by strike breakers, drivers have a basic salary of 52,000 rupees and can earn about 116,00 rupees with overtime. They will get a 25 percent increment next year, which can push the monthly wage to 145,000 rupees.

A meter reader, who now has a basic salary of 54,420 rupees and can earn up to 125,000 rupees with overtime, stands to get 156,000 rupees after the January increment, according to an emailed document circulated by strike-breakers, which CEB sources say seems accurate.

At the moment, junior engineering recruits are paid 97,000 rupees, which goes up to 123,000 rupees with allowances.

An office assistant, who now gets a basic of 34,000 rupees and earns up to 48,000 with overtime, will get a 25 percent increment next January, which can push potential earnings to 60,000 rupees.

But, the JVP-backed union has promised them more, in a ratio of 1:6 with the general manager.

The CEB had earlier decided to create a unified engineering service to differentiate between technical and non-technical staff due to increasingly above-market rates paid to non-technical staff.

Engineers had already been placed on the service with an increment. Other technical staff including electrical superintends and control room operators were due to be placed on the service, but no circular had been issued to give effect to the offer.





Non-technical staff had also been offered a 6 percent raise backdated from January 2017, which will be consolidated to the 25 percent increment next year.

The striking union had warned technical staff that the offer was an empty promise and to join them to get a wage increment higher than the 25 percent. Many technical staff had already joined the strike.

The cancelled board meeting has tipped the balance of power towards the strikers.

Electrical superintendents, who have so far not joined the strike, have now warned that they will also strike after a board meeting today, which was expected to give effect to their joining the unified engineering service, was cancelled.

Non-technical staff unions are wary of the unified engineering service as their bargaining power would be cut down in the future, with technical staff getting on a different salary track, CEB management sources say.

Up to now, engineers have been keeping the distribution running with difficultly, despite suspected sabotage adding to usual breakdowns.

A union member said that engineers have already got an increment and are in the engineering service have nothing to gain, although they are going outside their normal duties to keep the grid energised.

The current administration had also absorbed over 3,000 outsourced workers, who are now on strike with the JVP union, making it even more difficult for engineers to keep power flowing through the wires.

In 2012, engineers avoided nation-wide blackouts with the help of outsourced workers. But, the current administration had taken that safety valve away, absorbing them to the permanent staff and giving them room to strike, in addition to pushing up operating costs.

An email from the engineering union on Monday claimed that engineers were working night and day to keep power supplied.

Although engineers engage in trade union action, they rarely strike. They last struck in the mid-1990s.

Even if engineers return to normal duties, without joining a strike, power outages will begin to happen, according union sources, with the possibility of cascading breakdowns in the distribution system.

Although generation is relatively easier to keep running without manual labour, especially hydro, engineers may also not be able to keep the Norochocholai coal plant running without the help of manual labour. (Colombo/Sept17/2017)

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