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Legal Framework for Trade Unionism in Sri Lanka in the light of international standards

Trade union can be defined as “Any combination whether temporally or permanent, formed preliminary for the purpose of regulating the relations between workman and employers or between workman and workmen or between employers and employers for imposing restrictive conditions on the conduct of any trade or business and includes any federation of two or more trade unions” (Indian trade union act, 1926)

According to Wikipedia, trade union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. Originating in Europe, trade unions became popular in many countries during the Industrial Revolution, when the lack of skill necessary to perform most jobs shifted employment bargaining power almost completely to the employers' side, causing many workers to be mistreated and underpaid. Trade union organizations may be composed of individual workers, professionals, past workers, or the unemployed. The most common, but by no means only, purpose of these organizations is "maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment".

Activities of trade unions vary, but may include:

  • Provision of benefits to members: Early trade unions, like Friendly Societies, often provided a range of benefits to insure members against unemployment, ill health, old age and funeral expenses. In many developed countries, these functions have been assumed by the state; however, the provision of professional training, legal advice and representation for members is still an important benefit of trade union membership.
  • Collective bargaining: Where trade unions are able to operate openly and are recognized by employers, they may negotiate with employers over wages and working conditions.
  • Industrial action: Trade unions may enforce strikes or resistance to lockouts in furtherance of particular goals.
  • Political activity: Trade unions may promote legislation favorable to the interests of their members or workers as a whole.

The principal purposes of a labor union are to:


1.    Negotiate wages and working condition terms
2.    Regulate relations between workers (its members) and the employer
3.    Take collective action to enforce the terms of collective bargaining
4.    Raise new demands on behalf of its members
5.    Help settle their grievances. A trade union may be:

  • A company union that represents interests of only one company and may not have any connection with other unions. Also called house union, a company union is often a bogus one and generally illegal.
  • A general union that represents workers from several companies in the same industry
  • A craft union that represents skilled workers in a particular field such as carpentry or welding

Advantages of having trade Unions

1.    Trade unions fulfill the agency function
2.    Trade unions help to identify workplace hazards and improve its’ conditions
3.    Trade unions lead to improve Quality of work life
4.    Trade unions are the voice of grievances and complaints of the employees
5.    Trade unions bring some certainty and discipline to the workforce
6.    Trade unions influence on application on proper HRM practices
7.    Trade unions help to maintain the wages at a uniform level in terms of actual economic value

Disadvantages of having Trade Unions

1.    Its difficult to handle the things collectively rather than involving individually
2.    Trade union may represent an external influence ( national polities)
3.    It disturbs the unitary approach of the organization
4.    Trade unions are more interested in rules and regulations while managers more prefer flexibility and may be present unfair demands
5.    Trade unions Trade unions actions may be very detrimental to the organizational productivity

According Mills’s there are five major reasons to joint Trade Unions.
1.    In opposition to management
2.    To participating to union activities
3.    To exercises leadership
4.    Because of social pressure
5.    Compulsory unionization

Legal background of Trade Unions in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka we can find several laws for Trade Unions such as 1978 Constitution, No 14 of 1935 Trade Union Ordinances and No 56 of 1999 Industrial Dispute (Amendment) Act. Following are the brief explanation regarding Sri Lankan laws of Trade Unions.

  • Right to form a trade union and become a member of a trade union

1.    Constitution, Article 14(1) (d):
According to the constitution of Sri Lanka every citizen is entitled to the freedom to form and join a trade union.

2.    Industrial Disputes(Amendment) Act, No.56 of 1999, Sections 32 A (a)-(d):
According to the act no employer shall forced to employee to be a member of trade union as a condition of his employment, employer can not dismiss a workman by reason only of his membership of a trade union or engaging in trade union activities, no employer give any promise to workman for the purpose of preventing him from becoming a member/ officer or representative of a trade union and no employer prevent a workman from forming a trade union or supporting a trade union by financial or other means.

  • Right to engage in trade union activities


1.    Constitution ,Article 12,14(1) (a),(b) and (c):
According to the Constitution of Sri Lanka Article 12 illustrate the Right to equality and Article 14 illustrates freedom of speech and expressing, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

2.    Industrial Disputes (Amendment) Act, No.56 of 1999, Sections 32 A (b)-(f):
According to the act employer can not dismiss a workman by reason only of his membership of a trade union or engaging in trade union activities, no employer give any promise to workman for the purpose of preventing him from becoming a member/ officer or representative of a trade union, no employer prevent a workman from forming a trade union or supporting a trade union by financial or other means and employer can not dismiss or take disciplinary action against any workman or officer of a trade union, if the officer or workman do it in good faith.

  • Protection against anti-union discrimination


1.    Industrial Disputes(Amendment) Act, No.56 of 1999, Sections 32 A (a)-(f):
According to the act no employer shall forced to employee to be a member of trade union as a condition of his employment, employer can not dismiss a workman by reason only of his membership of a trade union or engaging in trade union activities, no employer give any promise to workman for the purpose of preventing him from becoming a member/ officer or representative of a trade union, no employer prevent a workman from forming a trade union or supporting a trade union by financial or other means and employer can not dismiss or take disciplinary action against any workman or officer of a trade union, if the officer or workman do it in good faith.

  • Collective bargaining and collective agreement


1.    Industrial Disputes(Amendment) Act, No.56 of 1999, Sections 32 A (g):
According to the act no employer refuses to bargain with a trade union which has in its membership not less than 40% of workman.

2.    Industrial Disputes Act, No.56 of 1999, and Sections 5-10:
According to the act public officers’ Unions not covered.

  • Right to strike


1.    Trade Union Ordinance, section 2, 18(b), 26 and 27:
According to the ordinance if any trade unions does not apply for registration in due time or if the registration of any trade union is refused or cancelled, then the trade union shall not or shall any of its officers on behalf of the union, take part in any trade dispute or promote, organize or finance any strike or lock-out provide pay or other benefits for its members during the strike or lock-out.

2.    Trade Union Ordinance, section 20(2) and 21:
According to the ordinance an association or combination consists of Judicial Officers, Members of the armed forces, Police officers, Prison officers and the Members of any corps established under the agricultural corps ordinance can not engage to trade unions.


According to above clarifications we can say Sri Lankan legal framework for Trade Union is in high position. Because the Trade Union rights granted by of Constitution of Sri Lanka, Trade Union Ordinance and Industrial Dispute Act.  But there are some restrictions regarding union rights of employees in Sri Lanka such as trade union ordinance section 20(2), section 21(1) (a), section 21(1) (b), ect.

International standards for Trade Unions


There are some standards regarding Trade Union rights such as Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and ILO convention 87 and 98. Following are the brief explanation regarding international standards of Trade Unions.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

Article 23:

•    Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
•    Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
•    Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
•    Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

Article 22:

•    Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
•    No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
•    Nothing in this article shall authorize States Parties to the International Labour Organization Convention of 1948 concerning Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize to take legislative measures which would prejudice, or to apply the law in such a manner as to prejudice, the guarantees provided for in that Convention.

Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No.87)

Article 2: Employees and employers shall have the right to establish union with only to the rules of the organization concerned and right to join to join to workers and employers’ organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization.

Article 3.1: workers and employers’ organizations have right to draw up their constitutions and rules, right to elect their representatives and have right to organize activities and programs.

Article 3.2: The public authorities shall refrain from any interference which would restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof.

Article 5: workers and employers’ organizations have the right to establish and join federation’s confederations.

 

Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98)

Article 1.1: Workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination in respect of their employment.

Article 1.2: Protection is respect to make the employment of a worker subject to the condition that he shall not join a union, causes the dismissal of or otherwise prejudice a worker by reason of union membership or because of participation in union activities within working hours.

Article 4: Measure appropriate to national conditions shall be taken, where necessary, to encourage and promote the full development and utilization of machinery for voluntary negotiation between employers or employees’ organization and workers’ organizations, with a view to the regulation of terms and conditions of employment by means of collective agreements.

Appendixes

 

Local affiliates of GUFs

IUF
1.    Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers' Union (CMU)
2.    Lanka Jathika Estate Workers' Union (LJEWU)
3.    The Ceylon Estates Staff’s Union (CESU)

ITF
1.    The Ceylon Mercantile Industrial & General Workers' Union (CMU)
2.    Sri Lanka Nidahas Sewaka Sangamaya
3.    Flight Attendants' Union
4.    Jathika Deevara Kamkaru Sangamaya (National Union of Fishermen)
5.    Sri Lanka Nidhas Rajaya Vurthiya Samithi Sammelanaya (Sri Lanka Independent StateEmployees' Federation)
6.    Air Traffic Engineering Officers' Association

IMF
1.    Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya Metal Workers Federation
2.    Sri Lanka Nidahas Sewaka Sangamaya

PSI
1.    Ceylon Workers Congress
2.    Labour Officers' Association
3.    Public Services United Nurses' Union
4.    Sri Lanka Accountants' Service Association
5.    Sri Lanka Nidahas Rajaye Vurtheeya Samithi Sammelanaya

EI
1.    All Ceylon Union of Government English Teachers, ACUGET
2.    All Ceylon Union of Teachers, ACUT
3.    All Ceylon Union of Teachers (Government), ACUT (G)
4.    Ceylon Tamil Teachers' Union, CTTU
5.    Sri Lanka Independent Teachers' Union, SLITU

IFBWW
1.    National Estates Services Union
2.    Ceylon Mercantile Industrial General Workers' Union

ITGLWF
1.    Sri Lanka Nidahas Sewaka Sangamaya
2.    The Ceylon Mercantile Industrial & General Workers' Union (CMU)

IFJ
1.    Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions

ICEM
1.    The Ceylon Mercantile Industrial & General Workers' Union (CMU)
2.    Diamond Workers Union

UNI
1.    Sri Lanka Graphical Federation
2.    Telecom Officers Union
3.    United Post and Telecommunications Union (UPTO)
4.    Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions

 

By: Nuwangi Wijerathne,

(Writer holds a BSc  Hons Degree in Human Resources Management ,University of Sri Jayewardenepura, as well as a Diploma in Labour Law and Industrial Relations and a Diploma in Counselling. She is currently the Human Resources Executive at a reputed IT Organization.)