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FUTA and JTUA : Never the Twain Shall Meet?

FUTA stands for the Federation of University Teachers Associations. JTUA stands for the Joint Trade Unions Alliance—the Alliance which organized the protests against the proposed pension scheme in the Free Trade Zone. These days both Unions are attracting public attention because they have embarked on trade union actions.

by Carmen Wickramagamage

(June 15, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) FUTA stands for the Federation of University Teachers Associations. JTUA stands for the Joint Trade Unions Alliance—the Alliance which organized the protests against the proposed pension scheme in the Free Trade Zone. These days both Unions are attracting public attention because they have embarked on trade union actions. FUTA has a series of demands, the principal among which is higher salaries for university academics, which would, in the long-run, contribute to safe-guarding public higher education in Sri Lanka. JTUA has one demand: abolish the Pension Scheme for Private Sector Workers. In the public’s mind, there is not much similarity between the two unions, so much so that the Katunayake incidents have displaced the focus on university teachers in the media. Some see the two unions as motivated by diametrically opposed demands: FUTA seeks to get something more and in that sense has the potential to be read as self-interested; JTUA workers are fighting a rear-guard action against a government that was trying to take away something they already had. The question is, are there no grounds for comparison between FUTA and JTUA?

On the face of it, there isn’t, except a few shared letters from the English alphabet. JTUA represents the "blue-collar" workers while the FUTA represents "white collar" workers who can afford to keep their collars the whitest due to the nature of their work. JTUA, in the case of the FTZs in particular, represent workers who have little autonomy and few rights; until recently, their right to unionization was non-existent. In contrast, members of FUTA enjoy a freedom and autonomy unthinkable in the FTZs. They have the power to shape the next generation of leaders and intellectuals. With regard to wages and working conditions, FTZ workers enjoy little above subsistence living, which also explains the high turn-over rate at the FTZ factories. Members of the FUTA are able by and large to maintain a middle-class life-style; it is the gradual erosion in this ability, which affects in turn both the recruitment and retention of high-quality academics at universities, that fuels the present trade union action.

The government is aware of this difference. That is why, when members of FUTA go on strike, they resort to a form of media blitzkrieg. Academics turn overnight into the local agents of some grand international conspiracy thanks to Mr Darusman and his fellow panelists whose much-maligned report is a handy tool with which to shush, if not crush, dissent. Or their image and reputation come to be dragged in the mud as those who work little, earn much and demand more. When the JTUA organizes protests in the FTZs against the proposed pension scheme, they are afforded no such verbal niceties. The kid gloves come off and the knuckle-dusters begin to show almost immediately. There is a belated attempt to talk to the workers but there is an in-built assumption that the government need not discuss the issue with a group that they call "lamai" or "daruwo" that, according to them, are misled by opposition parties such as the JVP. When children disobey, in keeping with age-old practice, corporeal punishment is okay.

Why then should I propose that FUTA and JTUA are not that different? Despite adopting almost diametrically opposed modalities for trade union action, despite the social and economic gap that separates members of the two unions, they are bound by a common cause: the right to free association and freedom of expression. Both FUTA and JTUA members have been "tarred" with the label of JVP, as if those affiliated with the JVP have no rights in this country. Therefore, when all other means to persuade the academics to come back to work failed, an invitation allegedly from the President first invites those academics who had publicly supported him in the recently concluded election to Temple Trees for a discussion, thereby rendering those who did not publicly support him persona non grata in the Republic! The similarities do not stop here. Malinda Seneviratnes, in The Island of June 06, censures the government for its show of force against people on whose shoulders it came to power: the workers. He forgets that while President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his party might have been carried to power on the shoulders of the workers, the intellectuals [among whom were many university academics] did the work of John the Baptist, whose job it was to announce the imminent arrival of the Messiah or Saviour. In the recently concluded civil war, a "victory" that helps President Rajapaksa to tower head and shoulders above his political rivals, these very same academics did the "culture work" that readied the population for the war effort. It is then one of those historical ironies [which also bodes well for the future of the Republic] that some of these same academics now give leadership to the struggle to safeguard public higher education in Sri Lanka just as among those workers who stormed the barricades at Katunayake and defaced the giant-sized cut-out of President Rajapaksa would have been workers who, not too long ago, in overwhelming numbers voted for the President and his party.

How then should we read this demonization of FUTA [as saboteurs] or the infantilization of JTUA workers [as "lamai" or children]? The characterizations eliminate not just the right to dissent but the need for discussion and negotiation. Spokespersons for the government now admit that consultations with the unions and workers were inadequate. But when the Pension Scheme was first introduced, the President himself declared at a public meeting [as reported in newspapers] that the government would push the bill through no matter who opposed it. Obviously, none among his advisors had seen fit to tell him how adversely the Scheme would affect the mainly female workforce of the FTZs who by and large do not clock the mandatory 10-year period of service which makes a worker eligible for the pension. Similarly, when the FUTA trade union action first began, the Minister of Higher Education declared that there was not a .0001 chance for FUTA to succeed in their demands. Obviously, no academic who serves the present government in a policy-making capacity had succeeded in impressing upon the Minister that low salaries to academics in state universities is one sure-fire way to kill public higher education in Sri Lanka because low salaries make it difficult to recruit and retain the best in the state universities and is leading more and more, unfortunately, to both migration abroad and part-timing locally. Admittedly, the government appears to consider the disruption to work at the FTZs more serious because of immediate negative fall-outs, in the form of foreign exchange and investor confidence. Hence, the immediate suspension of the Bill when the protests turned violent. However, there is now talk once again of an amended Bill. One has to wait and see if this is simply a face-saving declaration or something more.

As for the FUTA trade union, the government at the moment is alternately wielding the proverbial carrot and the big stick. On the one hand, a few rounds of talks have been held at which nothing substantial has materialized. In the meantime, the government is resorting to a measure that in the annals of trade union action by academics ought to be unique: pitting students against their teachers. Already, at four universities, Peradeniya, Wayamba, Sri Jayawardenapura and Ruhuna, the government has got students to file cases against academics who have exercised their legitimate right to free association to win their demands. This measure is not only unethical but dangerous because it can and will be used against other trade unions [for instance, in the health sector, where patients might be used to file cases against striking doctors or other health care workers].

Right-thinking people, irrespective of which party or sector they belong to, therefore, should not occupy the role of either passive or bemused by-stander/spectator vis-à-vis the struggles of either university academics or FTZ workers to win their demands. Giving the government free rein to apply the handy term, "terrorism," to suppress any expression of dissent against them is not a sign of a robust democracy. Already the "term terrorism" has been used against those involved in road accidents. The Minister of Higher Education has already dubbed the university campuses "uncleared areas" for the heavy presence of JVP-affiliated student unions on campuses. Very soon, workers affiliated with JTUA might become "economic terrorists" and university teachers affiliated with FUTA "academic terrorists", all in their different ways out to destabilize a legitimately elected government. With the PTA and Emergency Provisions still in place, the label "terrorist" can have lethal consequences on a striking worker.

I had a taste of it some days ago when I joined a group of Peradeniya academics distributing leaflets, in close proximity to a Kandy area police station, in order to raise awareness among the general public about our trade union action. It was the day after the Monday, May 30th, protests of the FTZ workers. I saw no reason to fear the police since I was not disturbing the peace. But a man, whom I later discovered to be a plainclothes policeman, quizzed me closely on who I was. He then kept us under observation from a distance, making us the subject of discussion with various uniformed policemen. I stood my ground, deriving some Dutch courage from my status as an academic, all the while preparing the speech I should deliver on my democratic rights as a Lankan citizen in case I was challenged. The incident progressed no further. Nevertheless, it reminded me of the plight of other citizens of Sri Lanka, pushed to second class status on economic or ethnic grounds—citizens who may not be able to draw on the confidence and courage I derived by virtue of my ethnicity and class status. It brought home to me the importance of all citizens of this country, irrespective of class, ethnic or religious affiliations, to come together to protect and insist on our rights, guaranteed under the Constitution, for freedom of association and expression. Becoming the Miracle of Asia will depend on our ability to protect these rights as well as on notching up double-digits in the economic index.

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