International Labour Day falls on 1 May every year. To date, more than 80 countries around the world have declared it a public holiday. International Labour Day is dedicated to celebrating the achievements of the labour movements, and to commemorate the trade union struggles and revolutions of the past and all those who sacrificed and worked for those struggles and revolutions. More specifically, Labour Day is set aside to celebrate Labour strength.
1 May is declared International Labour Day by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), based on the world-famous Great Labour Struggle of 1886 in Chicago, USA, demanding an eight-hour work shift. However, in Sri Lanka, International Labour Day was declared a public holiday in 1956 by the late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
The celebration of Labour Day should not be limited to 1 May. If that is the case then we are celebrating a mere calendar day, not a labour force and its strengths. Indeed, every day is ‘Labour Day’ for those who work enthusiastically with a vision.
The first Labour Day celebration in Sri Lanka was held in 1927 that was led by A.E. Gunasinghe. The first May Day rally in Sri Lanka was held in 1933 under the leadership of A.E. Gunasinghe. It did not take on a political face. The rally was attended by both men and women dressed in white and red, singing workers’ songs of encouragement ahead of the dance and drumming.
By the nineteenth century, the working class in Sri Lanka had no power. The situation they faced economically as well as legally was a disadvantage. Employees did not have the power to negotiate with their employers. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, many salaried workers had begun to grow around the city of Colombo. Although the centre of the colonial economy was in the plantation areas, it was these urban workers who contributed to the development of workers’ struggles later.
The oldest workers’ struggle in the history of the country, which took the form of an industrial struggle, was the strike of printing workers of H.W. Cave Company. The strike was triggered by concerns over low wages and poor working conditions. The strike, which failed within six days of its inception, ended with the dismissal of five workers who had led the strike. Although the strike was a failure, the printing workers’ union was formed at a public meeting the day after it began. A book published at the time, containing the constitution of the union, stated that the purpose of the union was to provide for the trade union rights and general welfare of the workers involved in the printing industry. But that union failed to consolidate its strength and collapsed within years of its inception due to employers’ efforts to destroy the infant trade union movement in the country, lack of member support, lack of understanding of the working class to continue the work of the trade union and problems with the union’s funding.
In July 1896, the Colombo Laundrymen went on a fierce strike. The trade union struggle was sparked by complaints against a bill passed by the Colombo Municipal Council demanding that all laundries in the city be registered with the Municipal Council to facilitate administration. The 1906 carters’ strike was the first time in the history of the country that workers expressed deep frustration with the ruling elite. It is also to oppose a Municipal Ordinance. The strike, which began on 13 August 1906, with the participation of 5,000 carters, completely disrupted trade in the city of Colombo. Three days after the strike began, city officials lifted the law against carts. The strike marked the first time in history that a group of Sri Lankan workers had won a trade union movement. After that victory, the carters’ association was formed that was the second trade union formed in Sri Lanka.
The 1912 railway strike is said to be the first major industrial disturbance in Sri Lanka. The strike called for a pay rise, full-time sick leave after five years of service, and a bonus after 20 years instead of 25 years.
Port workers have a unique place in the history of industrial struggles in Sri Lanka. In 1898, there was a strike caused by a reduction in the wages of port carriers. In April 1899, a group of workers at the port went on strike to get the water they needed. In 1901, boatmen at the Port of Colombo went on strike against a new wage system. In August 1910, boat workers on night shift went on strike demanding a nightly wage. Between February and March 1927, a massive general strike of about 13,000 workers at the Port of Colombo lasted for three weeks. Workers there demanded a pay rise and an hour’s rest as meal interval.
During the 1923 general strike, workers rallied for an unprecedented united industrial struggle. Also, the 1929 strike of tram drivers and conductors was another decisive workers’ struggle in the history of the country.
The Bank of Ceylon Clerks’ Union, founded by Gunasinghe, launched a general strike in 1946. It also had the support of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party. It was the first time in Sri Lanka that workers in both the public and private sectors, as well as middle-class workers such as clerks, came together for a strike. The entire general strike of 1947 was a clear reflection of the militant trade union activism of workers against the colonial government and certain employers who were undermining workers’ trade union and political rights.
Alfred Ernest Bulgens was the first in Sri Lanka to have a vision of trade unions and to publicly call for the formation of trade unions. Then there is Dr. Lisboa Pinto, an independent thinker who stood up for workers’ rights until his death. They had the courage to lead workers’ struggles, even at a time it was considered a criminal offence.
At a Labour Day celebration the name A.E. Gunasinghe and the name Bala Tampoe can never be forgotten. The first trade union in Sri Lanka was properly formed in 1922, the Ceylon Workers’ Union by Gunasinghe. Bala Tampoe, who joined the Ceylon Workers’ Union in 1947, co-founded a new movement in the history of trade unions called the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU).
Tampoe was a Supreme Court Attorney by profession. The Shop and Office Employees Act, which is currently in effect in Sri Lanka, is one of Tampoe’s winning trade union struggles. He also played an important role in the drafting of the Labour Charter. In recognition of Tampoe’s service to the Sri Lankan trade union movement, he was elected leader of the Sri Lankan delegation to the 1997 International Labour Conference in Geneva.
Politicisation of Trade Union Movement
It was inevitable that the Sri Lankan labour movement would develop on the basis of political motives. A good example for this is the Ceylon Workers’ Union, founded under the leadership of Gunasinghe, was the pioneer in founding the Ceylon Labour Party, one of the oldest political parties in Sri Lanka.
After independence, the trade unions in the country rapidly became affiliated to political parties. Trade union leaders became the political leadership at the national level. Within the same institution, many trade unions affiliated to different political parties were formed and multi-trade unionism emerged, as a result. It eroded the strength of the workers. Thus, funds were in short supply and the unions had to rely on political funding. Today, the May Day rally has become a political parade. Historically, not only workers, but executive presidents also lost their lives in politicised May Day rallies.
Today, many of the trade unions have to stand up for the agendas of the political party to which they attach, rather than for workers’ rights. Accordingly, today, International Labour Day is just another political day. Instead of celebrating the strength of the working class, it is just another platform used by various political parties to express their political views, slander their opponents, and display their political power.
The trade union movement in this country is stuck in a narrow space. But what needs to happen is for the trade union movement to take the lead independently in ensuring the democratic existence of the society, rather than operating as a political puppet with narrow political agendas. The Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme also points out that independent trade unions are a fundamental requirement for democracy of a country.
Trade unions in Sri Lanka must be depoliticised. Instead of being organised and further divided under the labels of political parties, there is a need to strengthen ideologically, unite in solidarity, and form independent, strong trade unions that can confront workers’ struggles. It is also imperative to create trade union and union leaders who are dedicated to workers. What went wrong at the outset in the Sri Lankan workers’ movement must now be corrected. Then ‘Labour Strength’ will be celebrated instead of a mere ‘Labour Day.’
About the author:
Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Human Resource Management, University of Kelaniya.
By Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe