The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.
Given that May Day was celebrated last week, it occurred to me that I had been rather cursory in my discussion of Labour Rights a few weeks back. This was not entirely arbitrary, for the section on Labour Rights is by far the shortest in the National Human Rights Action Plan.
This in turn is understandable for we really have a very good record as far as Labour Rights go. However we cannot be complacent, for apart from the fact that we can do more, we must note that we have been attacked in this regard by two powerful critics. When we lost GSP+, even though obviously the reasons were political, with a twisting of the knife by the former British government and its representatives, there were nevertheless allegations made against us with regard to our labour laws.
These have also surfaced through the American Labour Movement, ironically one might say because a lot of the objections apply to regulations in the Free Trade Zone, and these were introduced precisely to provide incentives to American investors and others who are used to much more docile labour unions. But the capacity to speak with forked tongue of those determined to screw us should never be underestimated, and we should not therefore allow them any excuse. While it may well be in the interests of Labour itself to remove some of the stipulations about dismissal, so that we can encourage more employment opportunities, the claims of equity and basic security should not be forgotten.
Ironically, the most forward looking measure government planned in this regard has been forgotten. I refer to the provisions for Pensions for private sector workers, which was a commitment in the government’s manifesto, and which reflects the Issue highlighted in the Plan, that there is inadequate protection and social security coverage for those in the informal sector.
Unfortunately there were some provisions in the proposed Act which drew strong objections, and as a result the Act was shelved. This seems to be a feature of the positive measures proposed by this government, that some controversy emerges with regard to some point, and then the whole measure is forgotten. Thus the Bill to reform the Electoral System, universally agreed (except by some of those chosen under that system) to be destructive, is in limbo, so is the Private Sector Pensions Act, so is the proposed new Education Act. Sadly the Higher Education Act, again a crying necessity (and a recent youth consultation I participated in made it clear that young people all understand the need for reform of the education system), never got off the ground, in part because there was a long delay in finalizing it. Now it seems it has been decided, given internal opposition to the Bill too, that it will be postponed indefinitely.
What is sad about all this is that the impression is generated that government is not really serious about the need for reform. This is not the case, given the efforts that went into all those proposals, but obviously when they are stymied and other less obviously beneficial measures go through, the criticisms made are understandable.
What is the problem? The Presidency generates several excellent ideas, as can be seen from the manifesto and also from the recent budget speech. Concern for the workers in the informal sector was a passion, I felt, from early movement on the subject, and it is tragic that that enthusiasm has been killed by opposition that burst into violence. At the same time, it would have made sense for government to have engaged more widely in discussions so as to ensure that all reasonable concerns were accommodated in any measures advanced.
That is the hallmark of the Human Rights Action Plan, that it advocates transparency and engagement. Unfortunately I find that some of my colleagues are still stuck in what I term a colonial mindset, that believes decision makers are the enlightened ones, and that there is no need for the people to know details of what is going on and what is proposed. This is an archaic perspective, and in direct opposition to current thinking, which is that all information should be freely available unless there is good reason to withhold it. After all we are working now with an educated population, which has the capacity to decide for itself. If information is withheld, they are more likely to be at the prey of agitators who will cloud the decision making process.
May Day I think proves my point that we have moved on a long way from the days in which particular parties were the guardians of the rights of Workers. All major parties now have Trade Union movements, and May Day is for showing strength rather than for advancing new ideas about promoting Workers’ Rights. This is no bad thing, for we must move from a confrontational view of Rights to the recognition that establishing and entrenching basic rights benefits society as a whole.
What Ralph Miliband characterized as the Marxist view of social relations – ‘The antagonists are irreconcilable and the notion of genuine harmony is a deception or a delusion, at least in relation to class societies.’ – is not a concept that is either accurate or beneficial to anyone in today’s context. Rather, in promoting a universal concept of Rights, we should promote what he characterizes as the liberal view, though I believe most modern thinkers share it, namely that ‘conflict does not, or need not, run very deep, that it can be managed by the exercise of reason and good will, and a readiness to compromise and agree.’
The Action Plan is based on this perspective, and I hope that, swiftly in those areas in which there is really no deep disagreement, we move towards reforms based on discussion and mutual respect.