Speaking initially to Labour Minister Gamini Lokuge, we were told that the minister is prepared to re-visit the controversial pensions bill which led to mass protests at the Free Trade Zone, Katunayake and resulted in the death of a worker and was willing to listen and consider all shades of opinion including trade unions and opposition political parties.
But digging further, we found that provisions to create a pension scheme for private sector and corporation workers is included in the Employees Trust Fund and Employees Provident Fund amendment bill, which is listed in the parliament order paper.
Asked for a second time, Lokuge confirmed that these provisions relate to a social security insurance scheme or a pension scheme for employees. But he reiterated that this is not the same law that was discussed in parliament and that led to a major controversy, due to its contributory nature.
Are the authorities out of their mind to pursue a path that could once again lead to confrontation, violence and possible bloodshed?
The minister has been repeating ad nauseum that in any future discourse on pensions for the private sector, all parties would be consulted. The headline on our story in the previous page ‘Govt. to sneak in private sector pension scheme’ says it all. Without consultations, as was the case, in the previous failed exercise, the government is trying once again to bambooze its way through legislation that people are opposed to.
A few weeks back, the Business Times extensively reported the proceedings of a discussion organised by Transparency International on the issue of ‘urgent bills’ where well-known lawyer and opposition parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said that another ruse in bringing in controversial pieces of legislation is through inserting these provisions at the committee stage level of another (connected) bill that is being discussed. Through this process, civil society is not given an opportunity to challenge the bill if it is unconstitutional.
This is exactly what the authorities are trying to do and if true, would result in a major furore amongst trade unions, employers, civil society groups and opposition parties. Proper consultation on various issues of public importance has been the bane of the government. Unions concerned about the ways things are done have urged the government to withdraw the bills pertaining to the private sector pensions fund and the pensions fund for migrant workers. Both remain in the order parliament of parliament and regularly listed as ‘second reading’.
6The danger, as pointed out by unions, is that these bills can be re-activated at any time by springing a surprise on the opposition, often very sleepy and not savvy when it comes to these issues. However parliamentarian Joseph Michael Perera’s effort to raise this issue must be commended, otherwise it would be just the way Sumanthiran, the lawyer, suggested.
Treasury officials have said already Rs 3 billion has been allocated as initial capital to set up the two funds – for private sector workers and migrant workers – after which the fund would be run purely on ‘forced’ contributions by workers through a percentage of their investment in the EPF.
While the Labour Minister is at pains to explain that these amendments to create a pension scheme is not on the lines of the disastrous pensions scheme proposal, it is unclear how the new one would be sustained.
Under the earlier plan, the accusation was that the government was planning to dip into the fund as a resource for its own expenditure owing to a shortage of money for recurrent and capital spending.
In the absence of any explanation, for obvious reasons as this again seems to be a secretive exercise, one can only surmise that the pensions scheme would come as a deduction from the wages of workers in addition to a percentage of their EPF contributions going to the fund. There is no other way the government can fund a costly scheme with its very, scarce resources.
Given the brazen attitude of some ministers and officials and the bull-in-the-China-shop approach, one can only wish and pray the government will abandon this foolhardy plan and discuss it, fully and clearly with all stakeholders, particularly workers.