CEB JTUA’s continuous strike A 10% salary hike solves the family conflict

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By 2017-09-25

BY NIRANJALA ARIYAWANSHA

Minister of Power and Renewable Energy Ranjith Siyambalapitiya acknowledged, at the end of the continuous strike engaged in by the Joint Trade Union Alliance for seven days, accusing the management of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), who are the engineers, of being corrupt, as "a solution bringing an end to a family conflict."

Anyhow, objections are being made from all segments against the CEB for having to spent people's tax money for the purpose of "ending the conflict in the family." All employees, including the engineers of the CEB, have been subject to severe criticism in society due to the strike. The reason was, in relation to other Government institutions, all employees from the lowest to the top management in the CEB were receiving huge salaries. The government had to agree to a collective agreement with all relevant parties to pay the strikers salary allowances of 10% from January of this year to put an end to the strike.

A 6-hour discussion had to be held at the Labour Commissioner's office with all relevant parties and the intervention of the Minister of Labour and Trade Unions John Seneviratne to arrive at this decision. An official who participated in this discussion told Ceylon Today that strikers as well as representatives of the CEB Engineers' Union (CEBEU) engaged in a battle unto death in order to win their own demands and on behalf of suppressing the demands of others. As soon as this hectic, impulsive lengthy discussion ended and all participants came out, the CEBEU and the strikers began accusing each other once again. It has been continuing unabated up to now.

CEBEU said that the strike engaged in by other employees, claiming that the engineers were corrupt, was halted immediately when they were granted a salary increase. Therefore, the CEBEU is accusing these employees of launching the strike with the objective of obtaining a salary increase.

"If the administration is corrupt there is no point in engaging in strikes. They have to approach a place like the FCID. There are three cases in Court complaining that we are corrupt. Therefore this strike is unjustified," the President of CEBEU Saumya Kumarawadu accused.

Convener of the Joint Trade Unions Alliance Ranjan Jayalal rejecting this accusation said that it was possible through this strike to create, an opinion among the people that the administrators of the CEB are corrupt.

"We did not ask for a salary increase. What we said was mainly that the illegal increase in salaries from January 2015, at a massive percentage between 70% - 124% that the Engineers' got for themselves, only be abolished. However, with the Government deciding to grant a 10% allowance to other employees, it is clear that the Government accepts the fact that the salary increases, which were implemented only for the engineers, are illegal," Jayalal emphasized.

However, the Secretary to the Ministry stressed that this salary increase, implemented from 2015, for engineers cannot be abolished after a lapse of three years. If by some chance the Government decided to fulfil the demands of the strikers it was a an open secret that at the next minute the engineers were prepared to engage in a strike. Therefore, he said that the only possible way to solve the problem was to increase the salaries of other employees.

In institutions such as the CEB, Sri Lanka Telecom, Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the Water Supply and Drainage Board the salary structure that is being implemented is one that is external from the annual budget. The salaries of employees of these institutions are increased once every three years and the percentage of increase is determined by a salaries committee established in each institution. All trade unions of each institution are granted the opportunity to submit to the committee proposals regarding salaries.

E- Scale for Engineers

Subsequent to the wages increase granted to the CEB in 2012, another increase was scheduled in 2015. With two days to go for the Presidential Election, on 6 January 2015 a circular was issued that a new level of salaries for engineers named E-Scale had been prepared by the then General Manager of the CEB Shavindranath Fernando. This circular had been prepared by the CEBEU. CEBEU then said that the struggle they were engaged in since 1987 to have a separate salary scale for technical employees including engineers of the CEB had been achieved.

Anyhow the problem commenced from there. Continuous objections were raised regarding setting up a special salary scale for engineers only, by trade unions in all services of the CEB except for the engineers. Their demand was that in comparison to the increase in wages of engineers, their salaries too should be increased. Finally it was this conflict that dragged on for a period of two and a half years resulting in a continuous strike from 13 September onwards.

At the discussion held with all relevant parties last Wednesday, all employees of the CEB about 23,000 were categorized into two groups.

Accordingly, technical services from engineers down to the lowest semi-skilled labour were named the Unified Engineering Services. Secondly, all clerks' services from accountants down to peons were named Support Services. It was agreed upon on this occasion to grant an allowance of 10% from January this year to all non-executive employees in the Support Services. In addition, in the wages increase that is carried out once every three years, which is scheduled for 2018, a 25% increase in salaries for all employees of the CEB has been proposed.

According to the subject Minister, "the conflict in the family had to be satisfactorily solved in this manner". It has to be considered separately how justifiable it is to sacrifice the people of an entire country to enable a solution for the conflict in a family.

Anyhow the engineers succeeded in maintaining uninterrupted power supply in Colombo and other main cities during the seven days of the strike. However in several remote areas away from Colombo there were power outages that lasted for several days. Expressing his views on this to Ceylon Today a power and energy expert Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya said that during the strike about 1,200 engineers prevented power breakdowns and put in a massive effort to maintain power supplies on behalf of the people 24 hours a day. He stressed that this should be appreciated. "Last week was a week where those who had and had the ability received electricity," he said.

Former Chairman of the CEB and Lecturer at the Moratuwa University Anura Wijepala also said that engineers fulfilled a valuable mission in providing electricity to the country during the period of the strike. "They have done a pretty good job," he said.

Are Engineers unique or superior?

It is the opinion of some that the engineers worked with commitment on this occasion to show the country that they could, without the assistance of other employees to operate the CEB. Certain other top officials accused that the CEB engineers believe that that they are unique or a 'superior'. The reason is the strong authoritative power that is being maintained within the CEB by the engineers. Engineers continuously emphasize that engineers of the CEB are engaged in fulfilling a very special service. There is some truth in this due to some danger that exists within the subject. However, could any profession or any group of professionals be unique in the world?

Dr. Siyambalapitiya as well as Lecturer Anura Wijepala emphasized the fact that they cannot agree with the concept of 'superiority' at all.

"No job can be unique. I believe that either Buddha or Einstein can be unique," Lecturer Wijepala noted.

There is another fact that engineers of the CEB keep on mentioning ceaselessly in a dominant manner. That is that, "Even when there is an opportunity for us to go abroad and work for a wage of more than one million rupees or with the possibility of being able to work in the private sector, we remain in the CEB because we love the country."

However Dr. Siyambalapitiya severely criticized this opinion.

"If these people say they are doing a huge service to the country as patriotic citizens, the power and energy should be much more developed. New technology should be experimented with the existing technology. Consumers should be able to get their work done through an SMS. Unlike 20 years ago, people pay a large sum of money to obtain electricity. Then the CEB is obliged to provide a far more effective service to consumers.

However when you visit Consumer Centre it is the same conditions that existed 20 years ago that are apparent. Consumers have to waste their time a lot to get something done. Consumers are not spoken to in a manner which makes them feel important and gets their task done. Only the engineers who are the top management can change these circumstances. What is apparent is that those who say they did not leave the country for patriotism has not done anything on behalf of the country," Dr. Siyambalapitiya pointed out.

Similarly, an engineer in the private sector earns a massive salary while working twice the amount the CEB engineers do. Engineers of the private sector have to be ready to work at any time. No allowances received by the State sector, pensions or holidays are received by the private sector. For those who do not make use of the annual 21 days medical leave of the CEB, there is the possibility of receiving an amount similar to their month's wage.

Anyhow, not only at the CEB but at all government institutions in Sri Lanka, the wage being paid is determined, not according to the service done but based on the position.

They settle at comfort zones

"So, we have to consider whether those who obtain these salaries are working in a manner that justifies the salary they receive. What many of them do is get them assigned to a job close to where their residence is, and everyone lives happily ever after," He explained.

Nevertheless, he emphasized especially that the CEB remains in the condition it does today due to a small group who works for the love of the nation and stay on at the CEB.

Undue advantage in a monopoly

The truth which we experience as of now is the fact that in State institutions that supply essential services such as power and energy, petroleum, water and health, all employees have built up within these organizations top demanding powers. This is due to the monopoly that exists in these services.

Intellectuals point out the need of compiling new laws to restrict at least to some extent these strikes which are carried out while sacrificing the people, hiding behind the monopolist power which exists in State institutions that maintain these essential services, under these circumstances. They stress that if not, employees of government institutions which maintain essential services will continuously use the people as a shield to win over their demands. For example government medical officers who earn salaries through people's tax money, when these people fall ill, pawn their lives on behalf of their demands and engage in strikes which is not at all justifiable, they pointed out.

Lecture Wijepala said, "There should be a monopoly for essential services. That is another issue. However, as a result employees take undue advantage. If that is to be eliminated, government policies should be formulated in a manner that restricts to a certain extent the trade union rights of employees who are recruited to essential services such as health, electricity, fuel, water etc.

According to what we know, neither the Police nor the tri-forces engage in strikes. It is possible that the reason is because they might have a special arrangement of laws for those services. Therefore if government policies exist for essential services, when employees are being recruited to those essential services, they will accept the fact that they have certain limits in relation to other professions where trade union rights are concerned. The employees are given the opportunity for recruitment only if they are in agreement with these policies. He further said that as a result, these employees will engage in their professional duties with some discipline and responsibility, he added. Anyhow, no government should have the ability to restrict or suppress trade union rights while putting forward this condition that they are essential services, by imposing such laws.

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