Sri Lanka.: Total victory for health workers’ strike

“The thirteenth day of our strike has ended with a glorious victory!” declared Saranapala Palihena, member of the Janaraja Joint Health Services Union and Executive Committee of United Socialist Party (CWI Sri Lanka).

“Last Thursday we met with the Health Minister and all the workers’ demands were agreed to. Then on Friday morning we discovered that the employer’s circular was insisting that all temporary and casual workers would have to re-apply for their jobs.

“There were 3,126 workers in this category on strike with us out of a total of 91,000 or so nationwide. We could not accept that they would be victimised, so we continued our strike. On Monday, we held a mass demonstration of nearly 10,000 workers at Colombo’s Fort railway station. We marched to the Ministry of Health at 2.30 and said we would not move until a new circular was issued. At 4.30 we were assured that everybody was being taken back!

“This is indeed a total victory. We have won parity with the percentage rise the doctors got through their strike. And, in view of the way the cost of living has been escalating, we need every rupee of that 40% increase.

“We have been told that it will take six weeks to work out the new wages with all anomalies eliminated. We have told the Ministry that if we are not satisfied with what they come up with at the end of that period, that we will go for strike action again.

“Everyone is feeling in a very jubilant mood. We had emergency cover, of course, but this must have been one of the most solid strikes ever. The army, navy and police were used to work in the hospitals, which we did not like, but there were no attempts to intimidate us with violence. The LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam) wanted our members in the hospitals in the North and East to go back to work, so that the state forces would not be in there. But the workers there were determined to exercise their right to strike.

“This struggle has been fought under the leadership of a joint body representing 51 health unions – both locally based and party based. In the recent past, unions linked with the ‘Marxist’ but communal party – the JVP – have tried to organise action on their own. Although they have a strong base in some of the hospitals, they did not succeed.

“We feel, through our victory, we have laid the basis for maximum unity in every future struggle of workers in Sri Lanka. We have the strength of organisation and determination even in a field of work where it is difficult to ask people to strike.

“The health workers have shaken the government in a way no section of workers has done for about 15 years. They must know that more workers will be following our example and they must heed the just demands of workers in a harsh economic and social climate.”

Tuesday, 30 September

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October 2003