Thursday 21st October, 2021
The ongoing tug of war between protesting teachers and the government has been at the expense of the hapless student, whose neck has got caught in the rope they are pulling on madly. What we are witnessing seems to be a different version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
The government is determined to reopen schools today although the teachers’ trade unions have refused to report for work until next Monday. It says there is a plan to ensure that schools will function properly today and tomorrow even if the protesting teachers do not turn up. One only hopes that the lowest of the low in politics will not try to run schools.
Now that teachers have agreed to report for work on 25 Oct., instead of today, the question is why the government could not postpone the reopening of schools by four days.
It is unfortunate that the success of any state sector trade union struggle is measured in terms of suffering it causes to the public. We often have the health sector trade union bosses bragging that their strikes are successful because they have crippled hospitals, or in other words, they take pride in hurting the sick who are too poor to afford treatment at private hospitals. The ongoing teachers’ trade union action has also had a devastating impact on children’s education. Teachers claim they introduced the online education programme of their own volition as they felt for their students, and they deserve praise for that, but sadly they discontinued it as part of their trade union struggle.
The government has claimed that some Opposition parties are behind the teacher-principal trade union action. No labour dispute is devoid of politics in this country. The SLPP leaders also have a history of instigating strikes for political reasons, and leaving the strikers in the lurch as they did in 1980, when the J. R. Jayewardene government sacked thousands of strikers. About one hundred thousand workers lost their jobs, and some of them even committed suicide. The SLFP did precious little to ameliorate the suffering of the victims even after capturing state power. Besides, all political parties have trade union wings and use workers as a cat’s paw to pull political chestnuts out of the fire. This is the name of the game in dirty Sri Lankan politics.
Labour disputes are like wounds, which should be treated immediately. If they are neglected, they become breeding grounds for political bacteria, as it were. Hence the need for governments to take prompt action to address the causes of strikes and find solutions through discussions. The current dispensation should not have let the grass grow under its feet. True, the salary anomaly issue that drove teachers to strike is more than two decades old, and it defies comprehension why the strikers took to the streets demanding a swift remedy. But the fact remains that the government could have handled it better and should have appreciated the initiative teachers took to conduct online classes for children and defrayed the expenses they incurred on data, equipment, etc.
When current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was the Labour Minister in the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, he famously said there were no winners in industrial actions, for both parties to a labour dispute suffered losses. As for the ongoing teacher-principal trade union action, too, there will be only losers.
The pandemic has caused unprecedented interruptions to education the world over, and its impact is felt in the developing world more than anywhere else. Hence the need for the strikers and the government to get themselves around the table and thrash out a compromise formula for the sake of students.
Meanwhile, let the government be warned that the ongoing farmers’ protests, too, are fraught with the danger of spilling over into the streets. Irate cultivators, who have suffered unbearable crop losses due to the current fertiliser shortage are threatening to march on Colombo. Unless the government makes a serious effort to solve their problems, we may witness, here, a situation similar to the farmers’ protests in India.