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’Equal wages for Equal work’ - The Strike and Struggle of Sri Lanka Telecom’s Contract Workers

20 March

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groundviews.org - 16 March 2017

Manpower Plunder: The Plight of SLT’s Contract Workers

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.

See video here

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 [see below].

“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.

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[( Statement by Telecom Manpower Struggle [Feb 2017]

Support the Telecom Manpower Workers Strike and Struggle for justice

For over 50 days now the Manpower workers of Sri Lanka Telecom have been engaged in a strike action demanding absorption into the company’s permanent cadre. However, neither the management nor the government, who is the majority shareholder of Telecom, have given a fair response to the workers’ demands. The Commissioner of Labour, the Minister of Labour and Trade Union Relations, and the Minister of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure have all recommended that the management absorbs more than 2000 Manpower workers into the work force. However, the management continues to ignore these recommendations.

The Manpower hiring system of Sri Lanka Telecom exemplifies an extreme form of labour exploitation. Sri Lanka Telecom started hiring workers through Manpower agencies in the late 90’s. In the beginning, only drivers were hired as Manpower workers. However, by 2002, technical officers were also hired under the Manpower status. As of now, out of 7000 workers in Telecom more than 2000 are Manpower workers.

Manpower workers are not entitled to the same rights and benefits as permanent workers. For instance, they are paid only one third of a permanent worker’s salary while they do similar jobs, which is a violation of the ‘equal wages for equal work’ principle. Even though Telecom hired workers through various Manpower agencies in the beginning, in 2007, it set-up its own subsidiary through which it sources Manpower workers. This was done amidst the workers’ continuous demand to absorb them into the permanent cadre.

Telecom Manpower workers have continuously struggled against this unfair and exploitative system, and have won several benefits as a consequence. However, Sri Lanka Telecom continues to enforce the Manpower system on them without absorbing them into the permanent cadre. Sri Lanka Telecom even changed the name of its Manpower Company from ‘Sri Lanka Telecom Manpower Solutions’ to ‘Sri Lanka Telecom Human Capital Solutions’ to deceive the workers. Some workers have worked for over fifteen years in Telecom under this arrangement but Telecom refuses to acknowledge them as its employees, hiding them by claiming they are by ‘Sri Lanka Telecom Human Capital Solutions’, nothing but a façade.

During the previous Presidential election, a major action against the Manpower system was launched. Current President and the common candidate of the opposition at the time, Maithripala Sirisena, promised to make the workers permanent once he came into power. The Prime Minister and Minister in-charge Harin Fernando also made promises to make the workers permanent during the 2016 Budget debate. However, when the government did not keep its promises, in October 2016, three workers of Telecom decided to protest on top of the Telecom tower for about three days. Minister Harin Fernando intervened and promised to solve the problem. But the Government continues to ignore various recommendations made by the workers since 2006. In this context, the strike, which has now passed its 50th day, was launched as a response to the government’s inaction.

Then Manpower system, which is spread to the private and state sectors, is an extremely exploitative form of modern slavery. Such a system weakens the bargaining power of labour and forces workers into low wages and precarious working conditions. As it is well illustrated in Telecom, permanent cadres are being rapidly substituted with precarious Manpower workers

The Telecom workers’ struggle, though against the Manpower system has wider implications for society that go beyond job security for the striking workers.. Therefore, the struggle has to be protected and should be strengthened by all of us who expect a just society. Trade unions, student unions and civil organisations must come forward to extend their solidarity and support the Telecom workers’ struggle and to protect it from all repressive and dilatory measures by the Telecom management.

Telecom Manpower workers’ struggle is the struggle of all of us, because a society of decent and civilized men and women must not allow such inhumane, degrading and exploitative systems like Manpower to prevail. Therefore, we ask from you to support and donate to the Telecom Workers’ Struggle, and strengthen the workers in every way you can.

There are various actions that you can take to support the workers.

  • Sign this statement and endorse the Telecom workers’ strike and struggle.
  • Ask from your trade union or civil organisation if they can support the Telecom workers’ struggle.
  • Raise awareness about the reasons for the struggle within your trade union or civil organization.
  • Make a financial or material contribution to the common fund to support the comrades who have been without work for more than 50 days. (You can SMS us or make a direct contribution to the account mentioned below, 0776021250 Lakmali , 0716777781 Kesara, 0775882281 Jananthan )
  • Call Telecom and convey your dissatisfaction over the entrenchment of Manpower slavery inside Telecom (If you are a Telecom customer you can call 1212, if you are not call 11-2021000)

Please share this statement to spread the word about the struggle and raise funds for the workers. Help the workers to break through the media blackout forced through Sri Lanka Telecom’s advertisement money.

Acc. Details
Solidarity Movement for Sri Lanka Telecom Manpower Struggle
Sylvester Jayakody & E.K.Vithana
Bank Account No: 0332 0013 0005 443
People’s Bank Queens’ Branch

Solidarity Movement for Sri Lanka Telecom Manpower Struggle )]

P.S.

The above article from Groundviews is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use