Sri Lankan nurses defy court ban and remain on indefinite strike along with other health workers

On Thursday evening, the Colombo District Courts issued a restraining order against the President of the Government Nurses Association (GNOA), Saman Rathnapriya, ordering him to immediately “suspend” the union’s involvement in the ongoing indefinite strike of tens of thousands of healthcare workers. The judiciary will issue its final decision on the order on February 24 and has told Rathnapriya to appear in court that day.

The GNOA, which has about 20,000 members, is one of 18 unions involved in the national Federation of Health Professionals strike which began on Monday. More than 65,000 health care workers, including nurses, paramedics, public health inspectors, medical laboratory technologists and pharmacists, are on strike.

Northern Province health workers strike in Jaffna on December 30, 2021 [WSWS Media]

The Federation of Health Professionals (FHP) has been forced to call for action in the face of growing member opposition to low pay and deteriorating conditions. The strikers are demanding the rectification of wage anomalies, higher transport and custodial allowances – from 3,000 rupees (US$15) to 10,000 rupees – increased overtime rates and improved promotion procedures.

Although the courts have pointed the finger at nurses, the strike ban is intended to break industrial action by all health workers. The health workers, however, are defying the court order, making clear their determination to win their long-standing claims.

Yesterday, thousands of health workers demonstrated in Anuradhapura, Hambantota and Nuwara Eliya districts. Similar numbers demonstrated in Kurunegala, Matara, Badulla, Vavuniya and Ampara districts on Thursday.

The request for an order suspending the strike was made by the Attorney General of Sri Lanka (AG). State attorneys representing the AG told the courts that “patient care has been severely impacted by the strike.”

The intervention of the GA would not have taken place without a directive from the highest levels of government. This follows President Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s condemnation of the strike at a public rally by his Sri Lanka Podjana Peramuna (SLPP) in Anuradhapura on Wednesday.

Rajapakse said civil servants resort to strikes under the “influence of various political forces”, adding, “Civil servants have a responsibility to serve the people and the country.”

Rajapakse’s concerns about “the people” are false. His government has ended public health measures to suppress COVID-19 and is trying to condition the population to mass infections and deaths. It is determined to impose the burden of the crisis aggravated by the global COVID-19 pandemic on workers and the poor.

Colombo is desperate to clamp down on industrial action by health workers, fearing it will embolden other sections of the working class to fight the government’s social attacks. Last year, strikes and struggles erupted across the island involving workers in health, education, government administration, railways, electricity, ports, oil and plantations. About 26,000 non-academic university workers staged a one-day nationwide protest yesterday to demand a pay rise.

Demonstration of striking non-academic workers at Jaffna University on February 10, 2022 [WSWS Media]

The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) condemns the government’s attack on health workers’ right to strike and other industrial action. We urge the entire working class to oppose the government’s repressive legal measures and to mobilize in defense of all healthcare workers. At stake is the fundamental democratic right of all workers to defend their living and social conditions.

The pro-government Public Service Nurses Union (PSNU) and the Ceylon Health Services Union (ACHSU), which is controlled by opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramunak, are breaking the strike. This strengthened the hand of the government and paved the way for its repressive measures. However, many PSNU and ACHSU members have started joining the industrial action in recent days and have condemned their unions’ strikebreakers.

Last year, the FHP organized 10 limited strikes on current demands. These struggles have been suppressed and betrayed by the trade union body, following the empty promises of President Rajapakse and his Minister of Health.

While the health workers remain on strike, the FHP is marking time while waiting to abandon the strike after the court order. Yesterday morning, the GNOA Facebook said rhetorically: “Although there has not been a single prohibition order but 10 of them, the more than 65,000 officers of this coalition will continue this fight. .

Last night Rathnapriya told the media that the union’s executive committee would ‘call a meeting immediately after receiving the restraining order and discuss the future course of action’. FHP Chairman Ravi Kumudesh said: ‘We are not aware of any orders being issued. Should there be any, we will seek legal advice on this.

The FHP has no intention of turning to other sections of the working class to defend the democratic rights of its members and engage in political struggle against the government’s latest assault. Tied to the nation-state, all unions fear that a mobilization of workers will produce a direct confrontation with the government and the capitalist class.

This week, FHP President Kumudesh publicly called on Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella to make a “pledge” on union demands and allow the union alliance to call off the strike.

Significantly, not a single union in Sri Lanka condemned the attack on health care workers or spoke up for them. Strengthened by this silence, the government intensified its attack.

Yesterday, Health Minister Rambukwella denounced the strikers, saying ‘trade unionists have a habit of rejecting well-founded reasons and discussions for a heavily constructed and manipulative political agenda’.

Minister for Ports and Maritime Affairs Rohitha Abeywardhana attacked striking health workers in parliament, saying: “There should be laws limiting strikes in sectors related to essential services. People are dying without drugs. He urged Justice Minister Ali Sabry to introduce anti-strike laws. Last month, Sabry called on President Rajapakse to ban strikes in key institutions.

The media supports the government’s threats, rolling out vicious propaganda against the strikers with stories about a man and a child who died because they were unable to get medical attention and photographs of suffering patients.

A hysterical editorial in Divaina, a Sinhalese daily, quoted ruling party MP Tissa Kuttiarachchi as saying strikers should be attacked with batons. “This country faces a multiple crisis… We oppose strikes that sabotage essential public services… Health workers are digging people’s graves. If people were provoked, health workers would be thrown into the same graves,” the newspaper said.

Workers must condemn the filthy propaganda of these media which fully support the policies of the Rajapakse government on coronavirus, ‘let it rip’, putting profit before human lives, undermining public health measures, reopening the economy and normalizing deaths from the pandemic.

The court’s ban on industrial action by health care workers indicates that the Rajapakse regime is moving towards a direct confrontation with the entire working class. Faced with a desperate economic crisis, the government, like its counterparts around the world, cannot tolerate any action by the working class.

Once again, this clearly poses the need for an independent mobilization of the political and industrial force of the working class to defeat the Rajapakse government and its big business policies.

Workers must create action committees in every workplace, independent of the unions, and forge their unity with the working class across Sri Lanka and around the world. This struggle must be based on the struggle for socialist policies. Workers, students and youth should join the Socialist Equality Party and fight for this program.

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