Jeevan Thondaman, leader of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), Sri Lanka’s largest plantation workers’ union, has informed President Wickremesinghe that he is ready “to accept a ministerial portfolio in government”. The CWC also operates as a political party.
In an interview with the DailyMirror On Thursday, Thondaman said the CWC “believes that President Wickremesinghe can help solve the problems facing people in the outback.” The CWC’s participation in the cabinet will, however, depend on the portfolio offered to it, he said.
Thondaman’s announcement is a clear statement that the CWC will do everything in its power to save Sri Lankan capitalism, which is facing an unprecedented economic and political crisis. The Wickremesinghe regime pledged to impose the measures of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and thus the burden of the economic crisis on the backs of the workers.
The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) warns plantation workers and the working class at large that the CWC will directly collaborate in the imposition of these brutal measures and the suppression of widespread opposition from the working class and rural masses.
Although Wickremesinghe has yet to respond to Thondaman’s offer, the president would induct other ministers into his cabinet in the coming days. Wickremesinghe, who will present his IMF-dictated budget to parliament on November 14, is trying to shore up support for his unstable government.
Thondaman was the Minister of State for Plantation Infrastructure in the government of former President Gotabhaya Rajapakse. He resigned from his ministerial post on April 4, as mass protests erupted demanding the resignation of Rajapakse and his government.
Millions of workers, including plantation workers and the rural poor, participated in these national struggles. While plantation workers staged protests in Bogawantalawa, Ragala, Maskeliya and Hatton in the central tea estate districts, the CWC kept a guilty silence on these protests.
Rajapakse fled Sri Lanka on July 13 amid huge protests and general strikes, resigning from his post two days later. Enthusiastic about Rajapakse’s appointment of Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May, Thondaman offered the CWC’s “fullest cooperation”.
Significantly, Thondaman has decided to join the government as widespread anger among workers, including plantation workers and the poor, mounts over the rising cost of living, shortages of essentials and starvation. imminent.
Thondaman and the CWC are not concerned with the life and death issues facing plantation workers, who have been hit hard by hyperinflation and a new round of attacks on their wages and conditions.
Around 500 workers at the Glenugie estate at Upcot in Nuwara Eliya district have been on strike since October 27 over intolerable working conditions and wage cuts. As Thondaman discusses with Wickremesinghe saving capitalist rule, the CWC and the National Union of Workers (NUW) work desperately to end the industrial action and push the strikers back to work.
In his DailyMirror interview, Thondaman denounced those who criticize plantation workers’ starvation wages, saying, “People should know that the plantation workers here are one of the highest paid workers in Sri Lanka and in the world.”
Thondaman’s assertion echoes the demands of plantation companies who vehemently oppose plantation workers receiving a living wage. The cost of tea production is high, the companies insist, because plantation workers in Sri Lanka are paid more than highly exploited plantation workers in other countries. Plantation workers are one of the lowest paid sections of the working class in Sri Lanka.
In 1948, just after independence, the citizenship rights of Indian Tamil plantation workers were abolished by the then United National Party government, as part of a political strategy to divide the working class along ethnic criteria. While Colombo granted citizenship rights to these plantation workers in the 1980s, the Sri Lankan ruling elite still treats them as second-class citizens.
Justifying his moves to join the Wickremesinghe government, Thondaman tried to brush aside criticism of the involvement of the CWC, which held ministerial posts in previous governments. Turning the story upside down, he claimed that the CWC’s involvement was for the welfare of the plantation workers.
After supporting various governments since 1948, CWC founder S. Thondaman (great-grandfather of Jeevan) joined the government of President JR Jayawardene in 1978 as Minister of Rural Development. Acting on the advice of the IMF, Jayawardene, introduced a wide range of “open market” economic policies and amended the constitution to give broad executive powers to the president.
These powers were used to impose brutal IMF attacks, crush working class opposition, including a general strike by public sector workers in 1980. In 1983, the UNP launched the 26-year Communalist War of Colombo against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Together with the CWC, all the other plantation unions – the NUW, the Democratic Workers Congress (DWC), the Up-country Peoples Front (UPF) and the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union (LJEWU) – collaborate with the bourgeois state and the plantation companies. Like all other trade unions in Sri Lanka, the CWC supports IMF demands for the privatization of state-owned enterprises, tax increases and the reduction of existing meager social subsidies.
Most plantation workers in Sri Lanka still live in dilapidated queue halls, built during British colonial times and lacking clean water, toilets and proper medical facilities. Unemployment is rampant among urban youth, with thousands forced to move to major cities and free trade zones or migrate to foreign countries to find work. These conditions are the direct responsibility of the CWC and other plantation workers’ unions.
Like all other unions, in Sri Lanka and around the world, the CWC is an industrial police force serving the interests of business, government and the state.
Last year, the CWC, under the leadership of Jeevan Thondaman, worked directly with Alton Estate management and the police to drive out the strikers. Thirty-eight Alton Estate workers were victimized and sacked in March 2021 during a national strike demanding a daily wage of 1,000 rupees (US$3). Twenty-two workers were also arrested on false charges, with the legal action still ongoing.
The latest CWC announcement demonstrates once again that trade unions cannot be used as instruments of struggle by workers for their interests but are part of the capitalist system and its governments.
To defend their rights, the workers must take matters into their own hands and create their own action committees, democratically elected and controlled by the workers, and completely independent of the unions and the capitalist parties.
Workers at the Alton and Glenugie estates have already formed action committees. The SEP and these action committees are ready to help workers from all plantations and other sectors to form their own action committees. The PES fights for a revolutionary perspective based on international socialism, that is, for a socialist program and for a workers’ and peasants’ government.