An Echelon Media Company
Tuesday September 28th, 2021

Trade union alcohol politics leave Sri Lanka state railways, passengers reeling

ECONOMYNEXT – A wildcat strike at state-run Sri Lanka Railways that left 400,000 passengers stranded was a result of union rivalry involving an attempt to frame an official for political gain one union leader charged, while strikers counterclaimed otherwise.

"I am today revealing myself as the person behind the reason for this politically motivated union," Chandrasena Bandara, identifying himself as the secretary of the Railway Operations and Technical Services Union told reporters.

Planted bottle? No bites

Chandrasena, a engine driving assistant said he was framed for drinking on duty by a checker who was an official of a rival union.

"Two people came to the room and looking for evidence of drinking, while I was talking with a friend," he claimed.

"They could not find any alcohol. Then one person took a call on his mobile phone and went to a cupboard and took the bottle out. How did he know there was a bottle in the cupboard? The person who put it there obviously told him?"

General Manager Railways had recommended action against Bandara and sent it with a covering letter to the impermanent secretary of the transport ministry, who alone had powers to take action against a union leader.

When he questioned that he was framed he was told that disciplinary action was taken against a railway guard, who had been caught drinking.

"But the railway guard was drinking on with bites nearby," Bandara said, with eyes tearing up. "I was framed. The bottle was planted?

"My friend who was not on duty went out and took a medical test to prove that he was not drunk. I asked for a medical test but I was held and a test was not administered to me."

Wildcat Union Strike

In the tug-o-war the GMR then had asked to be replaced and given another job, perhaps in the ministry, union leaders said.

Rival unions had then gone on a wildcat strike demanding that he not resign.

Unions officials aligned with Bandara alleged that the GMR had been entangled in an inter-union rivalry and they had no quarrel with him.

Transport Minister Arjuna Ranatunga then had to intervene to settle the strike.

"Over 400,000 passengers were left stranded because of this strike," he said. "Usually unions have to give 24 hour notice to strike. But this was not done.

"It is true that the GMR cannot suspend a union leader. According to a cabinet decision in the early 1990s, the power is with the ministry secretary."

Ranatunga said an impartial inquiry will be held so that justice will be done to all.

"But we see gaps in the this procedure such as the medical test, which I will rectify before leaving this ministry."

M J Roberts, convenor of the Joint Railway Union Alliance said they were ending the strike as of Thursday evening.

"We were given an assurance in writing that the GMR will not resign," he said.

Minister Ranatunga said the question of GMR resigning did not arise because no such resignation was given to him.

A letter written by Additional Secretary (Labor) was given to the strikers saying the GMR had agreed to stay in the job.

Over 100 unions

He declined to get into the merits of Bandara’s case and said unions should act with responsibility and he will ensure that justice is done.

The government had made Railways an essential service under emergency regulations.

Roberts said the government had agreed to remove railways from the essential services list.

Minister Ranatunga said if the unions acted only on their genuine labour issues such as salaries, the ministry was always willing to help but they should not strike on other matter.

"There will be no need for essential services orders if unfair strikes are not called," he said. "The order will lapse in two weeks unless we renew it. If they do not strike again I see no reason to renew it."

Bandara charged that the entire wildcat strike was a politically motivated stunt to embarrass the government because and he was innocent.

"There are over 100 unions in the railways," he said.

Reporters asked Roberts why they went on strike victimizing 400,000 passengers and a railway enterprise over petty union rivalries.

"This was done for the benefit of the public," Roberts said. "If these people get drunk it is passengers who will be endangered."

Sri Lanka railways runs massive losses running into billions of rupees, while state works strike over inter-union rivalries and pay.

In 2018, Sri Lanka Railways had revenues of only 7.4 billion rupees while operating expenditure was 14.3 billion rupees forked out by taxpayer including those who own motor cycles and cars paying taxes on petrol and food.

Another 15.2 billion rupees was spent on capital expenditure.

Unlike the road system where car and motorcycle users pay massive import duties, excise taxes to buy vehicle helping recover investments in roads as well as taxes paid daily on petrol, there is no revenue from railways to repay the costs as it is running an operational loss. (Colombo/July06/2019)

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