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'This is a govt. which protects the employers'

2014 Nov 13

BY Umesh Moramudali and Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

The Inter Company Employees' Union (ICEU) represents both directly and indirectly nearly 5 million private sector employees. President of ICEU Wasantha Samarasinghe spoke to Ceylon Today about the 2015 budget's fund allocations and provisions to the private sector.
: How has the 2015 budget affected the private sector employees? Has the issues of private sector employees been addressed through the 2015 budget?
A : The private sector employees are not satisfied with the 2015 budget at all. Through this budget the private sector employees have been disgraced by the government. We could have had discussions with the employers and through our struggles eventually increased the salaries. It has been suggested to increase the monthly salary by a mere Rs 500. By this a license has been given to employers to increase salaries by Rs 500 and that this would be deemed sufficient. This will be used to ignore the issues of the employees. We do not agree with this at all. What can you do or buy with an increase of Rs 500? This is a disgrace to private sector employees.

: However the 2015 budget has suggested giving a fixed salary of Rs 10,000 to employees. Is this not a good initiative?
A : There is a problem with this. We have constantly requested the government to fix a minimum salary for all private sector employees no matter where you work, be it as a journalist, a female garment worker, a factory worker, a teacher, an officer worker, someone who works in a clothes shop or even a police constable. All of these people when they go to a shop must pay a specific price for the goods they purchase. The value of what we buy is not decided upon our salary. The shops have a price. The minimum salary was suggested by us so that a salary below this amount could not be paid. We suggested Rs 15,000 as the minimum. It is essential for every employee to have a fixed salary to cope with the present cost of living. There is no point in employers maintaining organizations which cannot pay even Rs 15,000. Closing them is better if this is in fact the case.
There is no betterment for the employer nor any benefit or wellbeing for the employee. There has been a grievous wrong committed by giving
Rs 10,000 when we asked for Rs 15,000. The fundamental rights of the people and the Constitution have thus been violated. The public or government servant gets Rs 15,000. The cost of living index is Rs 10,000. The total is 25,000. The private sector employee only gets Rs 10,000. There is a difference of
Rs 15,000. This is unfair. What is the justification to the working class of this country for this? Over 80% of the country's economy is shouldered by the private sector. Over 75% of the work/labour force is represented by the private sector. This is inhuman. This is a licence given to exploit the young labour of this country. We do not accept this. At the very least the public servant gets apart from the salary of Rs 15,000, allowances which amount to Rs 10,000 bringing the total up to Rs 25,000. The government should at least make the private sector minimum salary Rs 15,000. At different workplaces different salaries are paid along with allowances too which are paid in the form of attendance allowances and other such allowances. It would be to a certain extent fair if it was Rs 15,000. Today this is not the case and therefore, there is no justice to the private sector.

: Yet, the contribution of employers to the Employees' Provident Fund (EPF) was increased by 2% and the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) tax was reduced to 16%. Should these not be seen as positive initiatives?
A : PAYE tax is paid by those who have a monthly income of Rs 50,000. By August the price of goods for a four member household was Rs 51,354. If the person's salary per year is Rs 600,000, they have to pay PAYE tax. The people who are unable to purchase the essential goods, the poor too pay taxes. This is the tragedy. The increase of 2% with regards to the EPF is good as there will be some amount saved further. We are not suggesting that this is bad, but this should not obscure the real problem and the major injustice. For someone getting a salary of Rs 20,000, the contribution of the employer is increased by Rs 200, but for someone getting a salary of Rs 10,000 only Rs 100 is increased. For a year it is Rs 1,200. There is some saving taking place here. This is not bad. However, even the poor person pays taxes. This is the reality. Therefore, a just salary increase is necessary thus allowing people to live with a degree of dignity.

: In the 2015 budget, there is a suggestion to provide pensions to garment workers and three wheel drivers. What is your take on this?
A : We ask the government whether it is only the garment factory employees and three wheel drivers that are in need of a pension. They should understand that every employee needs a pension. We have an issue with regards to this. Is this the pension scheme they scrapped in 2011 that they are now trying to bring back? Tell us the truth. In 2011, along with the fraudulent proposed Pensions Act, the proposal to increase the employer's contribution to the EPF by 2% was also there. Tell us how the pension scheme is formulated. This is the same pension scheme for which Roshane Chanaka was murdered in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone in 2012 that is being brought. We ask that every employee in the private sector get a pension which is sufficient to live on. These are false promises. The government has no plan or genuine intention to put these into practice. Why now the hurry when Chanaka was killed in 2012? Where and when were the discussions with the private sector regarding this? Where are the proposals or suggestions put forward by experts who have gone abroad and studied pension schemes of other countries? This is a fraud and an election gimmick.

: There are many allegations on the misuse of EPF funds. As the ICEU what are you going to do about it?
A : We have continuously raised concerns about misuse of EPF. ICEU even went to Supreme Court regarding this along with 11 trade unions and a petition. EPF money belonging to private sector employees are being used to invest in companies owned by the friends of those who are in power and to buy shares. Huge losses were incurred by such investments as indicated in audit reports. Aside to this, after 2011, reports have not been presented to the Auditor General's Department. Severe financial frauds take place on a massive scale. Monies are amassed and stored by the government. There are many concerns regarding the transparency of using EPF funds. The monies of private sector employees are invested in Treasury Bills and bonds and the government has also taken loans from these funds. Not only is this government in debt to the private sector employee but it also robbing them blind. Nothing is being done about these charges. We lodged a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABC), but no inquiry has been conducted to date regarding the matter. This is because if the matter is investigated the thieves will be found along with details on how they stole. How did the transactions occur? How did money exchange hands? To what accounts the money went to? Where are the accounts? To whom did the monies then go to? All of this will be revealed if inquiries are conducted.

: Is there a sufficient contribution from political parties affiliated to the government towards securing the rights of the private sector?
A : At the moment we don't see any. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna was there when the United People's Freedom Alliance government was being made in 2004. It was then for the first time in the history of the country that a law was brought into increase the salaries of the private sector employees. This was the Budgetary Relief Allowance of Workers Act No. 36 of 2005. Salaries were increased by Rs 1,000. There are various different employers in the private sector. If a law is not brought in, the employers can operate bypassing the law. The gazette can be ignored. Demands can be ignored. President Mahinda Rajapaksa treating us as second class citizens can also be ignored by the employers. If a law is brought the employers can no longer ignore it and continue. Other than getting votes, we do not see one constituent party of the government talking about the rights of the private sector employees. They should apply pressure on the government to bring about laws and demand that salaries be increased for the private sector. We do not see such proposals or suggestions being put forward. Demands are ignored. This is a capitalist government which protects the employers. Tax relief is provided to employers along with privileges and allowances. Nothing is given to the private sector employee. The crooked constituents of the government are maintaining silence in the face of these thefts and not raising one single voice on behalf of the private sector.

: As the ICEU are you supporting privatization ?
A : The ICEU does not agree with privatization. We will not allow it to take place. There is a private sector in the country. The various sectors, organizations, institutions and their produce should be under the purview of the government. There is over 40% in our country whose daily income is less than 2 USD. The government has a responsibility to provide facilities for these people and create a conducive environment for them to live by giving a guarantee to them. The institutions and establishments must be administrated. The private sector decides the price level and their production or manufacturing is totally based on the profit. It is on the price that the services or goods depend. Thus, we are completely against privatization.

: While the private sector makes profits the government institutions incur huge losses. What is the reason for this?
A : Aside to corruption, the main reason for government institutions incurring huge losses is the rampant cronyism and nepotism.
SriLankan Airlines annual loss is between Rs 20 to Rs 30 billion. The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) buys vehicles at Rs 30 to Rs 40 million and pays salaries in the scale of Rs 500,000 to Rs 600,000. They purchase medicine for impotence with money from CPC funds. The CPC has annual losses in the range of Rs 70 to 80 to 100 billion. How can the CPC run at a loss? People pay money for the fuel that is imported. This is because these institutions are not maintained with guidance and direction. There is no vision and proper guidance to make these institutions better and profitable. This is due to the politicization of these institutions and the massive corruption and malpractices that take place in them on a daily basis. They run solely on commissions and theft. The people have to bear the burden of these. This is a political problem that has gone beyond the issues between the private sector and the State sector. Politics provide the protection for theft, fraud and corruption. Public enterprises are caught in the theft, fraud and corruption guillotine and for this the government has provided the protection.

: Is enough being done by the Opposition to tackle the issue?
A : We have always fought on the streets, in provincial councils and in the Parliament to raise a voice against the misuse of public funds by institutions. After increasing the electricity tariff, how does the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) incur losses of Rs 100 billion? Where is the investigation into the CEB incurring a loss of Rs 1.5 billion importing coal? Where is the investigation into the CPC theft and fraud in the hedging deal? We are going to the Criminal Investigation Department against the government giving a company affiliated to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam the Rs 18 million valued contract to refurbish the Sri Lankan diplomatic mission in Geneva.

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