Labour’s lost agency
30 March 2015
Tracing the historical trajectory of worker mobilisation in Sri Lanka to understand its shortcomings in the present.
…What can explain the unrelenting decline of the labour movement in Sri Lanka over the past 40 years? The reasons are multiple and combine both internal and external factors related to organised labour. The most dramatic development was the structural shift to an ‘open economy’ after 1977. In the general election of that year, the UNP (in alliance with the Ceylon Workers Congress) formed the government. The left was wiped off the electoral map, while its erstwhile partner in government, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, was reduced to a rump in the new parliament.
The political defeat of the left – following the poor record of the United Front government between 1970 and 1977 – was compounded by the ease with which the ideas and language of the neoliberal right became common sense. Ideals of equality, fairness and redistributive justice that had once prevailed were going out of fashion. Sri Lanka became the first country in the Southasian region to reorient its economy away from regulation of the market to regulation by the market, following the prescriptions of right-leaning development economists and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund…