14 unions to defy ban on May 1 rallies

Some local trade unions, backed by a global trade union body, are bracing for a confrontation with the authorities after deciding to go ahead with May 1 rallies and celebrations despite the Government changing the date of May Day to May 7. Backing the local unions is the Geneva-based Industrial  Global Union which on Friday fired letters to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, urging them to remove restrictions on holding May 1 rallies.


Since May 1 falls during the Vesak week, the Government at the request of the Mahanayakes has declared May 7 as the official May Day holiday for celebrations, while May 1 will be a normal working day. Protesting unions said that changing this traditional International Labour Day, marked in Sri Lanka since 1956, was akin to changing one’s birthday!

Industrial Global Union General Secretary Valter Sanches, in his letter urged the two leaders to reverse the decision, and grant permission, through the Colombo Municipal Council, for May Day rallies to be held in public parks on May 1. He also said the union, “stands in solidarity with its affiliates in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan trade union movement in their struggle to protect the rights of workers, including their democratic right to commemorate May Day on the 1st of May”.

On Thursday, a group of 14 unions said they were going ahead with May 1 celebrations and also expressed disappointment that the Government had unilaterally decided on the change of date without consulting the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC), a point also reiterated in the Industrial  letters. The NLAC is a state-managed body with representatives from the Government, trade unions and the private sector.

Local unions said that for workers and unions, May Day had important historical significance and workers around the world celebrated it on May 1.

Industrial  Global Union represents 50 million workers in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors in 140 countries, including Sri Lanka, and has also been actively involved in the lobbying for the restoration of GSP+ concessions to Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, the Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union claims private sector workers who fall under the Shop and Office Employees Act and the Wages Board Ordinance are at risk of having to work on both May 1 and May 7.

The union’s Joint Secretary, Anton Marcus, claimed that the Labour Ministry needed to publish a separate gazette regarding the change of the May Day holiday from May 1 to May 7. This has not happened so far, resulting in employers giving their own interpretations as to whether May Day is in fact a holiday for the private sector. Already, some factories have put up notices, informing workers that May 1 was a compulsory work day. With no gazette out to declare May 7 a holiday for the private sector, employers could also claim that it was not a holiday for the sector, the trade unionist said.

However, Labour Ministry Secretary Nimal Saranatissa said there was no need for a separate gazette. The Ministry has already gazetted holidays for workers and it is the Ministry of Home Affairs which gazettes on which date the holiday falls, he said. “We have already declared May Day as a holiday. Even though the date has changed, under the Holidays Act, May Day is still a mercantile holiday. So, the change of date has no effect. Employers must give a paid holiday to their workers on May 7,” he said.

(The  Sunday Times)

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