Sri Lanka teachers’ strike: police minister promises tough action against saboteurs

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara has promised tough legal action against any school teacher unionists who attempt to sabotage government plans to reopen some schools on October 21.

Speaking at an event in Colombo on Thursday (14), Weerasekara drew parallels between a dragging teachers’ strike – now into its fourth month – and Sri Lanka’s civil war.

“If teachers’ salaries are low, we must definitely give them higher pay. But there is something like this: We destroyed terrorism. Whether the root cause of that terrorism was fair or not, terrorism cannot be justified, because it is innocent civilians who die from it. Similarly, whether or not the teachers’ grievance is fair, we cannot justify their strike because it is our children who suffer from it,” the minister said.

Teachers and principals in Sri Lanka have been on strike for 95 days as of Friday (15) over long-standing salary anomalies, in what has become one of the longest trade union campaigns in the island’s history. Having rejected a government proposal to increase their salaries in two installments from 2022, union leaders said on Wednesday (13) that they will continue the strike until a solution acceptable to them is provided.

Ceylon Teachers Union Secretary Joseph Stalin told reporters on Thursday that if there is no solution by October 21, the alliance of unions engaged in the strike will “take a decision”. October 21 is when the government plans to reopen some 5,000 schools out of over 10,000 after a months-long closure due to the COVID-19 epidemic.

The trade unions are stubbornly clinging to a demand that salary recommendations proposed in the Subodhini Committee report be implemented. The Subhodnii report is a document formulated by a committee that was appointed by a former education minister.

Claiming that the unions have compromised in accepting the Subodhini proposals, Stalin dismissed the notion that the government cannot afford the increment demanded by them.

“We know that the government has now decided to allocate 120 million rupees to district development coordinating committees’ chairmen and deputy chairmen clearly targeting the provincial council polls.

“The government has money for expenses like this, but not to resolve the teachers’ salary issue,” he said.

Related: Sri Lanka teachers’ trade unions stick to their guns, continue strike

Minister Weerasekara, meanwhile, claimed that some teachers have personally told him that they would like to come to work.

“Please report to work and give these children their education. A lot of teachers have said to me: ‘Sir, we’re not doing this willingly but under pressure’,” said Weerasekara.

“As minister of public security, if there are any threats against teachers who do report to duty, I stress earnestly that we will take tough action against them. If there are sabotage attempts even in the form of a single word, as public security minister I will take responsibility for it and take legal action against them,” he said.

This is the second time in recent weeks that Minister Weerasekara threatened action against the the teachers on strike.

On September 30, he said in a televised interview that the authorities had been too soft on teachers who engaged in massive protests in July and August over the unresolved salary anomalies. His comments drew flak from the school teachers’ unions who claimed the minister’s words were a clear threat to their right to protest and signalled a keenness for militarisation.

Related: Sri Lanka teachers unions angered by police minister’s call for “tough” measures

Issuing a different type of veiled threat, ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna MP S B Dissanayaka told reporters on Tuesday: “Teachers should come to school and start work. Otherwise we have to defeat and suppress the strike and restart the schools. It has been done in the past. Advanced rich countries such as Singapore have done it. Otherwise they will still be like us.” (Colombo/Oct15/2021)

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