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May Day and the Rights/Needs of Working Women

Sri Lanka is one of the countries where women percentage in population is markedly higher than men (52%). Therefore, their social burden is also higher. Extremely high number of ‘women-led households’ particularly in the North and the East clearly indicate that one reason for the situation was the long-drawn-out destructive war.

by Laksiri Fernando

( April 26, 2018, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is still not too late to make a major focus on the ‘rights/needs of working women’ in the coming May Day celebrations, whether it is celebrated on the 1st or the 7th. An arbitrary decision by the President has unfortunately created a confusion and a division among those who intend to celebrate the event for more positive and constructive purposes.

May Day is an opportunity to think about how Sri Lanka could collectively improve the working conditions of women, their rights and needs, and bring their best contribution/s to the economy and its development. Although in theory, we pay lip service to gender equality or non-discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, this is not the case in practice.

Article 12 (1) and (3) of the Constitution is almost forgotten in practice. The way the fundamental rights are formulated in the Constitution as at present, they are not strictly applicable in the private sector, unless private companies make a voluntary effort. Sri Lanka ratified the ILO Convention relating to ‘non-discrimination in employment and occupation’ way back in 1998, but there are no much follow up efforts to ensure those principles.

In the Trade Union Field

A crucial question for the trade union leaders to contemplate on this May Day is whether they have opened up equal opportunities for women in their leadership and organizational structures?

There is obviously a macho culture in the trade union movement. This is also the case in the left movement in general. An easy excuse can be that trade union work is hard and arduous and therefore women hardly can afford them. The question however is whether the trade union leaders have made any effort to promote women to leadership positions.

It is possible that many women would be reluctant to come forward due to personal or societal reasons. However, if their menfolk do encourage and support them, they could also play an important role. Without their participation, the trade union demands or struggles could be one sided. Also without them, the trade union organizations are not properly democratic.

Take the example of trade unions in the teaching profession. Over 70% of the school teachers are women, almost all permanent teachers having membership in trade unions. Nevertheless, all the key positions of important teacher unions are held by men except in few small unions. This is irrespective of the good work done by the Joint Sri Lanka Women Teachers Network (JSLWTN) since mid-1990s.

There were times that trade unions like the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) promoted women participation in leadership positions and militancy in their activities. May Wickramasuriya was a product of that effort, but after she got married to the General Secretary, to my knowledge, all efforts went astray!

It has to be admitted that there are obvious social and other constraints in promoting women in trade unions and beyond. That is why it has to be a broader ‘social reform effort’ encompassing many fields and sectors. One possibility in the trade union sphere is to form ‘women action committees’ to look into this matter and make proposals to the present leaders and members.

Women in the Workforce

Sri Lanka is one of the countries where women percentage in population is markedly higher than men (52%). Therefore, their social burden is also higher. Extremely high number of ‘women-led households’ particularly in the North and the East clearly indicate that one reason for the situation was the long-drawn-out destructive war. They still live and work under extremely difficult circumstances and their plight and needs have to be taken into account on this May Day when discussing working people’s rights.

Although the women percentage is higher in the population, economically active women population is less than 35%. This is not conducive for economic development or for their social betterment. There are social and cultural reasons for this situation, but at the same time, low pay for equal work and the lack of further opportunities are also reasons for the women to drop out from the workforce earlier than the retirement age. Men and women also do not enter the workforce equally for similar reasons. These have to be rectified, the trade unions taking a more active role in national policy formulation and implementation.

There is no question of appreciating that particularly in education and health, women are equal as men or even better. However, when it comes to pay, working conditions and treatment by the bosses, there are issues of discrimination or even abuse. If not the trade unions or the working class movement in general, who would take up these issues with the employers or the government?

It is generally acknowledged that in terms of pay, the gender gap is narrower in public services than in the private sector. This has to be rectified and the trade unions should take an active role. One reason for the situation is the excessive competitiveness in the private sector, other than the disadvantaged bargaining position of women due to social taboos and/or male dominated hierarchies. Like in politics to an extent, some of the Colombo boys schools and their networks dominate the scene. This is also disadvantageous to young men from out of Colombo schools, who seek employment in the private sector, and particularly the graduates from rural areas.

Good Signs in the Service Sector?

Nevertheless, there are good signs in the expanding service sector. Women participation in the industrial sector is the lowest, according to Labour Force Surveys, constituting around 25%, irrespective of the textile/garment industries. Women participation approximately is 35% in the agricultural sector, which includes the estate sector as well. This figure also includes a high component of women underemployment in the rural sector without much gain to themselves or to the economy. These are the poorest of the poor.

The good sign is the high women participation in the service sector, topping over 40%. Traditionally, women in the service sector are the typists or the secretaries. However today, many of them are computer operators or IT workers with at least medium skills although not remunerated adequately compared to male counterparts with similar or lower qualifications. These young women might not take interest in traditional trade union activities, nevertheless they are for women rights/needs with potential interest in broader social justice issues.

Sri Lanka’s major foreign exchange earners are undoubtedly women, particularly among the migrant workers, apart from the textile/garment employees and the estate workers. Migrant workers are not organized, without much potential to be organized. Nevertheless, the organized workers and the trade union movement should recognized them as part of their constituency and should address their needs and rights on this May Day.

A Women’s Bank!

Labour is not completely divorced from entrepreneurship or innovation. This is increasingly true in the services and knowledge sectors. This is something that the traditional trade unionists and the leftists need to recognize. A successful worker/employee today can become at least a small entrepreneur tomorrow. There is no Chinese wall between the two. Sri Lanka might be at the very early stages of this development, but the trade unions or their leaders should not be averse to the possibility. It is the old capitalism that kept a strict division between the labour and the entrepreneurship. Socialism also cannot emerge without merging the two, labour and entrepreneurship.

Japan is a country where innovative capacities of workers are properly being utilized for industries and services. Workers are handsomely rewarded for their innovative contributions. China today might be the same or more so on these lines.

While the trade unions fight for ‘higher wages’ and ‘better working conditions,’ they also should encourage the members to save and invest at least for their future and the future of their children, however difficult that may be under the present circumstances. A common old age pension scheme for all is also necessary, like in Australia. To afford such a possibility, Sri Lanka should develop and develop fast.

Women have a special place, when it comes to savings and investments. I have seen how female university employees struggle to save through ‘Seettu’ (money pooling) system for their broader needs. I believe, this is a unique Tamil (women) cultural contribution to all Sri Lankans. Irrespective of the occupation, ethnicity or the economic sector, women are in the forefront of the ‘struggle’ to save and possibly invest.

The setting up of a specialized Women’s Bank on a commercial and a professional basis is in order to encourage women workers to save and invest. It could be called ‘Vanitha.’ Equivalent name is the same in Tamil, I understand (வனிதா). The migrant women workers, the garment factory workers and the new female employees in the service/knowledge sectors might make a special contribution to this venture. The expanding middle class women also could take the opportunity. (The bank obviously should not exclude men, if they could save some, after their drinks!).

A Women’s Bank could be a specialized venture also to cater to small to medium scale women entrepreneurs.

Encouragement of savings and the utilization of the scattered savings or potentials in the country are national needs where the household saving ration is not that low (24%). This is not the first time that such a proposal for a women’s bank was mooted. However, some efforts in this direction have not reaped desired results as they were not professionally or commercially organized.

There is of course a more broader economic rationale why a Women’s Bank might be necessary and viable in the country. The reason to make this proposal for the May Day is to emphasize that the trade unions and the workers movement in general should focus more and more on broader issues of the workers and the people, especially women at this stage, without confining merely to ‘wages and working conditions.’

Women (Only) Buses?

A recurrent theme of public discussion in recent times has been on sexual discrimination and harassment of women in professions, at work place, and more tragically in public transport. Sugandhika Fernando, a young lawyer has recently exposed, among other serious aberrations and irregularities in the legal profession, what prevails in terms of sexual discrimination or harassment.

What the trade unions can do in curtailing such harassment at work place is to suggest to the employers or the officials in charge to issue guidelines to prevent harassment and perhaps put up even public notices to that effect at work places. Simple notices such as ‘Respect your women colleagues’ might go a long way. These might improve working relations and also productivity.

There have been continuous letters to editors or opinion pieces in newspapers highlighting what women face while travelling by public transport. Just three days back, one Sumith de Silva from Kesbewa wrote to The Island on what he called “Uncouth conductors” (23 April). It is perhaps not only from conductors that women face these harassment in public transport. The overcrowding of buses is also inconvenient for mature women to travel in comfort. Some women, as I understand, travel to work now in private vans, but obviously all cannot afford that luxury.

Therefore, women only special buses might be the solution during rush hours to resolve this unfortunate situation until perhaps the society becomes more civilized. The drivers and conductors of these buses also could be women. The trade unions on behalf of women workers should ask for these arrangements from the SLTB, the government and the private owners. May Day might be the best opportune time to do so. There are countries which have made such arrangements facing similar situations to Sri Lanka. One recent example is Papua New Guinea. Likewise, there can be reserved compartments for women in trains specially during rush hours, however strictly enforced. There can be a tendency for the ‘ruffians’ to violate the restriction on various pretexts.


There can be many other May Day contemplations for the trade unions to follow, highlight or demand, for the betterment of the working populations or the people at large. One such a long term demand could be the Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all. As there are many controversies surrounding the concept, it should be better proposed after much study and reflection.

The trade unions should go beyond their traditional confines and address particularly the broader issues, needs and concerns. That is the reason to highlight the ‘rights/needs of working women’ in a non-traditional manner for this May Day. The trade unions should address not only the ‘rights,’ but also the ‘needs’ of the workers. What might be necessary is to come up with relevant and practical solutions as much as possible for the benefit of the workers and the country.

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