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‘Difficult to Live’: Sri Lanka Port Workers Join National Strike

Sri Lankan trade unions went on a one-day national strike last Wednesday, forcing the closure of some of the nation’s ports, banks and hospitals in protest of soaring living costs and recent tax hikes implemented by the South Asian nationa’s government.

About 2,000 port workers, already staging a “work-to-rule”—meaning laborers only do the specific minimum required in a contract—held a demonstration in support of that demand during their lunch break at the Port of Colombo.

“We are protesting because we are finding it difficult to live. This income tax bill must be removed if not we will ensure that there are more problems for this government,” Niroshan Gorakanage, convener for the Ports Trade Union Alliance, told reporters, according to Reuters.

The demonstrations come less than two weeks after Sri Lankan Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva said the government will spend $132 million on port development projects in Colombo. These investments would be made through revenue generated from port operations, de Silva said.

Speaking at an event in Colombo on Feb. 20, the minister said the government has allocated over $100 million for the Eastern Container Terminal and $32 million for the Jaya Container Terminal. Both terminals are fully owned subsidiaries of the state-owned Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

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Across the country, more than 40 trade unions instituted full- and half-day strikes, sick-leave campaigns, lunch-time pickets and other protests in defiance of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s strike-breaking Essential Public Services Act aimed at outlawing strike action by those working in the “essential” public transport services sector.

Wickremesinghe, who was elected president in July 2022, had already faced public backlash over steep tax hikes and government spending cuts to secure an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $46 billion foreign government debt last April, pushing then-Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to declare the country “bankrupt,” and leading to calls for a bailout from the financial institution. The island nation is struggling with its worst economic crisis and recession since gaining independence from the U.K. in 1948, with annual inflation soaring more than 50 percent, a shortage of foreign exchange and a plummeting currency.

Elected by parliament to replace the ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe said in February the economy contracted by 11 percent last year and the island will remain bankrupt until at least 2026.

In 2023, the Sri Lankan government has responded to the crisis by hiking income taxes up to 36 percent and raising utilities tariffs by 66 percent as it tries to rectify public finances and debt and qualify for September’s provisionally agreed $2.9 billion bailout.

Union leaders said they were told by Wickremesinghe on Saturday that he cannot reduce income taxes as it was a condition of the IMF to release the bailout package.

The strikes related to these actions also have extended to government employees, with hundreds reportedly wearing black clothes and armbands and flying black flags outside state buildings.

Most banks across the country were closed for the day as banking unions joined the strike, and government hospitals were hit as nurses staged a four-hour strike and doctors joined demonstrations, union officials said.

Finland dockworkers end two-week labor strike

Over in Finland another national strike involving ports has reached its conclusion.

A workers strike that halted cargo operations at all of Finland’s ports for two weeks is coming to an end after a collective bargaining agreement was reached on Wednesday.

Over the 25-month agreement term, dockworker pay will increase 6.3 percent, with workers getting an additional 1,100 euros ($1,175) in a one-off bonus.

“At AKT, we are satisfied with both the signed collective agreement and the end of the labor dispute,” said Ismo Kokko, chairman of the Finnish Transport Workers’ Union (AKT), in a statement. “The round has been difficult because the negotiations have included an exceptionally large number of external factors. From the beginning, we have negotiated our own starting points, taking into account the interests of our members. That’s what was done now as well.”

The union represents roughly 45,000 members, and had been seeking pay increases that aligned with those granted in Germany after their port labor disputes were settled last year. AKT had rejected two previous proposals to settle the labor dispute, with Kokko insisting that the union would not settle for pay raises that lined up with wage hikes determined by key export industries such as technology, which often didn’t exceed 6 percent.

The agreement will not introduce other significant changes to the terms and conditions of employment for the dockworkers.

Dockworkers in Finland had been on strike since Feb. 15, hindering exports from the Nordic country. The country imports and exports most goods via its ports through the Baltic Sea, and with most railway cargo to and from Russia slashed since the war in Ukraine, it has become even more dependent on sea freight.

The union said as a result of the agreement, it would end the strike against all the ports effective immediately, with dockworkers returning to their jobs last Saturday to start normal work shifts.

The strike impacted Finland’s 10 major ports, including Helsinki, Hamina-Kotka, Hanko, Rauma and Turku. The Finnish Port Operators Association had estimated that each day of the strike impacted more than $300 million in foreign trade.

Maersk, which had suspended all service to Finland in the wake of the strike, advised customers to continue to defer shipments saying that it would advise them when the operations were back to normal.

Dockworker strikes at the Finnish ports are similar to other stoppages that occurred in Europe’s gateways in 2022. On-and-off port strikes occurred at Germany’s Hamburg, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven hubs last summer before workers and employers settled on a contract in August.

That fall, U.K. ports faced strikes as well, with Liverpool workers stopping laboring three times and Felixstowe seeing two such strikes. Contracts were resolved for Liverpool dockworkers in November and Felixstowe staff in December.

Meanwhile, longshore worker contract negotiations drag on for U.S. West Coast stakeholders. Although the prior contract expired on July 1, 2022, laborers at The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alongside 27 other ports have worked without a new collective bargaining agreement in the time since. Both parties in the negotiations said late last month that they “remain hopeful of reaching a deal soon.”