COLOMBO: Sri Lankan public sector unions on Wednesday threatened to cripple all state services in a July 10 general strike for a pay increase, but the government said it could not meet their demands without hurting its war effort.
Union officials said a majority of the country’s 1.2 million public sector employees would participate in Thursday’s strike, which is expected to hit government services from transport to health, after a requested salary increase of 5,000 rupees ($46.4) a month was rejected.
“The trade unions will definitely go ahead with the planned strike, despite suppressing acts by the government,” said K.D.
Lalkantha, president of the All Ceylon Trade Union Federation and an opposition parliamentarian representing the marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or Peoples Liberation Front.
“Cost of living is rising rapidly and the state sector employees are unable to live with their present salaries. But the government has failed to grant a better salary increase.”
The government was trying to suppress the strike by arresting and threatening some trade union leaders, he added.
Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella denied the government was harassing union leaders, and said Colombo could not increase public sector salaries without damaging its ability to fight a civil war against Tamil Tiger separatist rebels.
“We don’t have provisions in the 2008 budget for such an increase. We would need an extra 50-60 billion rupees ($465-555 million) for the rest of the year,” he said.
“What you can cut is the defence expenditure. But we will not cut defence expenditure at this decisive moment.”
The government had allocated around 18 per cent of its 925.1 billion rupees budget this year to defence spending, as it pushes fulfil its pledge to finally crush the Tiger rebels in a war that has killed more than 70,000 people since 1983.
Fighting in the 25-year civil war between the state and the rebels, who want an independent state in the north and east, is now concentrated in the north after government forces drove the Tigers out of their eastern enclave in 2007.
Last week the government offered a 1,000 rupees-a-month pay increase for state employees, but the trade unions rejected the hike as “grossly inadequate”.
High oil and food prices have caused Sri Lanka’s cost of living to rise rapidly, while the International Monetary Fund and analysts have also blamed high state expenditure for stoking inflation.
Annual consumer price inflation rose to 28.2 per cent in June, its highest since the current index began in 2003.