Sri Lanka teachers’ strike: minister threatens legal action if teachers disrupt school reopening

Sri Lanka’s Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara has promised tough legal action against any school teacher unionists who attempt to sabotage government plans to reopen some schools on October 21.

Speaking at an event in Colombo on Thursday (14), Weerasekara drew parallels between a dragging teachers’ strike – now into its fourth month – and Sri Lanka’s civil war.

“If teachers’ salaries are low, we must definitely give them higher pay. But there is something like this: We destroyed terrorism. Whether the root cause of that terrorism was fair or not, terrorism cannot be justified, because it is innocent civilians who die from it. Similarly, whether or not the teachers’ grievance is fair, we cannot justify their strike because it is our children who suffer from it,” the minister said.

Teachers and principals in Sri Lanka have been on strike for 95 days as of Friday (15) over long-standing salary anomalies, in what has become one of the longest trade union campaigns in the island’s history. Having rejected a government proposal to increase their salaries in two installments from 2022, union leaders said on Wednesday (13) that they will continue the strike until a solution acceptable to them is provided.

Ceylon Teachers Union Secretary Joseph Stalin told reporters on Thursday that if there is no solution by October 21, the alliance of unions engaged in the strike will “take a decision”. October 21 is when the government plans to reopen some 5,000 schools out of over 10,000 after a months-long closure due to the COVID-19 epidemic.

The trade unions are stubbornly clinging to a demand that salary recommendations proposed in the Subodhini Committee report be implemented. The Subhodnii report is a document formulated by a committee that was appointed by a former education minister.

Claiming that the unions have compromised in accepting the Subodhini proposals, Stalin dismissed the notion that the government cannot afford the increment demanded by them.

“We know that the government has now decided to allocate 120 million rupees to district development coordinating committees’ chairmen and deputy chairmen clearly targeting the provincial council polls.

“The government has money for expenses like this, but not to resolve the teachers’ salary issue,” he said.

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