The government confirmed that it would along with the involvement of the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development construct several places for protests replete with areas for speakers in the city where protests are commonly conducted.

The right to protest is guaranteed by jurisprudence in cases such as the Supreme Court case of Gunawardena vs. Perera and Others.

“It is a question of how one uses this right without depriving others of their rights,” Deputy Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Karunarathna Paranawithana pointed out.

He noted that the government would not allow roads, hospitals and the Parliament to be blocked and people to be inconvenienced for hours on end.

He also added that during a protest or strike if public property was damaged, stern action would be taken against those responsible and once arrested the matter would be taken up at the High Court level.

He highlighted that it was not organized trade unions in the trade union sector that engaged in unethical protests but university students, parents and teachers, common folk and also doctors who think that they are running the country.

“In several areas in the city, we will establish such places. This is the sign of a developed city. With regard to formulating laws and laying down guidelines concerning the prescribed manner in which forms of trade union actions including protests and strikes should be conducted, it is not an easy task. We will have to discuss such with labour organizations. The government is working expeditiously towards putting in place a comprehensive mechanism in this regard,” Paranawithana explained.

Recently, the country’s transportation sector went on strike, the result being a celebration of chaos, a brief descent into a state of anarchy. The various types of strike actions include wildcat strikes, tools-down, go-slow, work to rule and sit-downs. In tripartite industrial relations, relations between employers and employees in the workplace including those with Governmental stakeholders are mostly strained affairs, with a healthy dose of mistrust on all sides, rightly so on most occasions. It is high time Sri Lanka provided for the right to strike, an unequal measure of bridging inequality.

In terms of resolving industrial disputes or any other manner of dispute, it must also be acknowledged that a strike, which is meant to have a crippling effect and impact, should be a last resort measure, once all means of recourse and communication have been exhausted. In such an instance, a strike could be the only remedy with regard to securing one’s rights, demands and conditions against the non-provision of them and violations of them.

In the absence of the explicit recognition of the right and a more comprehensively prescribed manner and form in relation to the conduct of strikes and legal policy guidelines regarding such, vague and ambiguous interpretations are given by the relevant authorities and the judiciary.

The freedom of speech and expression, peaceful assembly, association, to form and join a trade union and of movement, are fundamental rights enshrined in the provisions of Article 14(1) of the Constitution. While the only restrictions that can be imposed on the exercise of the said rights are for the most part on the grounds of maintaining and protecting “racial and religious harmony,” apart from further restrictions on free speech and expression including publication in four other contexts, the freedom of association can be restricted in the interests of the ‘national economy’.

The operation of all these fundamental rights can also be limited in the name of national security, public order, the protection of public health and morality, for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and in meeting the just requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society. The freedom of peaceful assembly and association should only be restricted if such is necessary for the protection of law and order.

Freedom of association involves the right to form and organize a trade union or trade unions and join a trade union or trade unions, and to function in and as such. Trade union struggles sometimes involve trade unions participating in trade union actions including strikes. The exercise of any right entails the fulfillment of the responsibilities associated with the right. They must conform to the laws of the land provided the laws are not unjust.

Article 23(4) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) {acceded to and ratified by the Government of Sri Lanka} recognizes the right to form, obtain membership of and engage in trade union activities.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 87 of 1948 contains the same. As noted in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, Sri Lanka has ratified fundamental ILO Conventions such as Conventions, No. 87 of 1948 on the Freedom of Association and the Protection of the Right to Organize and No. 98 of 1949 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining. There are also World Trade Organization Ministerial Declarations and the ILO’s Social Justice Declaration that is applicable in this regard. By the acknowledgement that a trade union which has not registered the union as per the prescribed procedure being denied taking part in strikes, Section 18(b) of the Trade Union Ordinance implicitly recognizes the right to strike. The ICESCR goes further to recognize in conformity to the laws of the land, the right to strike and the exercise of it.

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