Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapakse published an extraordinary newspaper on Thursday, declaring that most sectors of the state were “essential services”, effectively banning industrial action. The purpose of this draconian order is to quell growing anger and popular unrest over deteriorating living conditions and escalating attacks on democratic rights as COVID-19 infections rapidly rise across the country.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa [Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena]

All ports, customs, petroleum, state rail and road transport, administrative and social offices, state banks, including the Central Bank, and nationwide insurance services, as well that waste management by local authorities is now covered by the law on essential public services.

Under this law, any employee of these institutions who does not attend work is liable to “a conviction, after summary trial before a magistrate” and “a rigorous imprisonment” of two to five years and / or a fine of 2,000 to 5,000 rupees ($ US11– $ 25) or both. The “movable and immovable property” of any convicted person may be seized by the State and his name “deleted from any register kept for profession or vocation”.

In addition, it is an offense to “induce, induce or encourage any other person” not to go to work by a “physical act or by speech or writing”. This means that anyone who fights to defend the democratic rights of these employees can be punished.

The immediate reason for Rajapakse’s decision appears to be the ban on a nationwide strike scheduled for Thursday of 12,000 village government agents, who demand vaccination against COVID-19. However, the government’s draconian measure is to prevent strikes and protests against similar demands from broader sections of the working class.

Last November, Rajapakse issued an essential service order for 15,000 port authority workers, after starting to voice concerns and threaten industrial action over the danger of COVID-19 at their workplaces and the measures government privatization. The strike ban on port workers was allowed to expire after three months, but only after unions temporarily dispelled workers’ protests.

Escalating COVID-19 infections, sharp increases in the prices of food and other essentials, and the government’s refusal to provide adequate social assistance or protection have led to strikes and protests. involving postal, railway, plantation, education, health and electricity workers. These last months.

While Sri Lanka officially recorded 94,949 cases of COVID-19 between March 15, 2020 and April 15, those numbers have increased by 80%, up 76,328 since then. These figures are a serious underestimation of the real situation due to the low number of tests.

The sudden rise in the number of coronavirus infections shattered Rajapakse’s claims that the pandemic is under control and heightened the concerns of Sri Lankan workers, young people and the rural masses who anxiously follow the coronavirus disaster in India and around the world.

Medical specialists in Sri Lanka and abroad have publicly warned that the island faces an impending “disaster” and called on Colombo to lock down all non-essential services and swiftly overhaul the country’s dilapidated health services.

The government, which vehemently opposes any lockdown, has responded by imposing travel restrictions for two weeks, until June 7. President Rajapakse insists that the economy, and the export sector in particular, must remain open. Last week, he banned health officials and other officials from making statements to the media about the pandemic without permission from him, as it could “panic people.”

Health workers, including attendants, nurses and doctors, are growing angry at impossible workloads as hospitals are inundated with COVID-19 patients. Several health workers have died from the highly infectious virus.

Hundreds of infections have been reported in garment factories, inside and outside the country’s free zones (FTAs), some employing up to 5,000 workers. In recent weeks, several factories have been forced to close in response to concerns from workers and nearby residents about the lack of COVID-19 safety measures.

Like all capitalist governments around the world, the Rajapakse regime, which relentlessly defends the profit interests of big business, insists that employees must keep working.

On May 4, Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Minister of Labor, said clothing bosses could cut workers’ wages by 50% and lay them off if their companies encountered problems created by the pandemic.

Not a single opposition party or union opposed Rajapakse’s draconian announcement on Thursday, a move that directly affects the democratic rights of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers and anyone defending their right to lead a campaign. industrial action. The same unions and political parties did not oppose the essential services ordinance imposed on port workers last November.

It is not a coincidence. These organizations have no fundamental differences with the repressive measures of the Rajapakse government and are dedicated to the defense of the profit system.

Earlier this month, Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the main opposition party, urged the government to call a multi-party conference on the worsening pandemic. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, said that if the regime is not ready to work with the opposition, a “broad-based mechanism” should be formed. Similar advice has been offered by the Tamil National Alliance.

Like the Rajapakse government, these parties are extremely nervous about the development of mass opposition from the working class and the poor.

President Rajapakse also reactivated his previously declared extraordinary gazette to mobilize the Sri Lankan armed forces to “maintain public order” in the 25 districts of the country. These forces and the police who are now patrolling the streets will be mobilized against the working class and the poor as they enter into struggle.

The working class must take these developments seriously. The Rajapakse government, aided and abetted by opposition parties and unions, is intensifying its preparations for an all-out class war.

The working class can only defend its democratic and social rights by breaking with the unions and independently mobilizing its industrial and political force against government attacks. This requires the creation of action committees in each workplace as part of the struggle for a workers ‘and peasants’ government based on socialist and internationalist policies.

The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) is the only organization fighting for this prospect. Anyone who agrees with this program should Register now and attend Sunday’s online public meeting “The Coronavirus Pandemic in India and the Need for a Socialist Strategy” at 6 p.m. India Standard Time to discuss these vital issues.

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