Three weeks have passed since five union leaders of plantation workers in Sri Lanka were dismissed on charges of organizing a blood donation camp without prior permission from their employer. Workers of the ATG Ceylon company, who are demanding the reinstatement of the union leaders, protested on January 31 outside the prime minister’s house and demanded he intervene and help resolve the issue.
The management of ATG Ceylon (British-Sri Lankan company), citing court orders, also barred the union leaders from participating in any protest. This move invoked more resentment among the workers, who began an indefinite protest on January 11 at the Katunayaje Export Processing Zone. “The company’s aggressive effort to stop union leaders from interacting with striking workers is against the principle of justice,” Anton Marcus, director of the Free Trade Zone and General Service Employees Union, noted.
A memorandum was also handed over to president Maithripala Sirisena during the protest on January 31. Valter Sanches, the general secretary of IndustriALL, expressed his disappointment over the company’s failure to resolve the dispute by using national and international labour standards.
“…Act promptly to put an end to the unlawful dismissals, harassment,” the general secretary said, “[so] that it will not be necessary for IndustriALL Global Union to call upon all our affiliates worldwide, and in particular our European affiliates, to urge the European Union to reconsider the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) with your country, on account of the egregious violations of trade union rights.”
The friction between the company and the workers culminated in September 2015 after the union leaders organized the blood donation camp, which the health minister attended. This event infuriated the company so much that it issued a chargesheet against 30 employees. Seven union leaders were placed under disciplinary proceedings immediately while the remaining others were issued warning letters, strictly prohibiting them from attending such engagements in future.
“The ATG management acted unfairly without respecting the ongoing arbitration process and in violation of the Industrial Dispute Act. All benefits due to workers, irrespective of their involvement in union activities, should be provided to them. We demand that the terminated workers be reinstated immediately. We call upon the ATG management to constructively engage with the union towards resolving the dispute as soon as possible,” Anton Marcus had said on January 16 .
In 2017, ATG Ceylon reportedly forced new elections, despite the union already having the mandate of the workers. The union nonetheless gained a majority in the elections, with a participation rate of over 90%. However, the discrimination against workers persisted.
The company tried to demoralize the workers by refusing to give gold medals to union members who had worked longer than five years. But when one of the workers resigned from the union, he duly received his medal.