Striking Holcim workers in Sri Lanka occupy cement plants

Byrebecca3360

Updated Mon, 09 Jun 2014 11:32:29 GMT

Sri Lanka: Nearly 500 contract workers at two Holcim Lanka cement plants in the towns of Puttalam and Galle in Sri Lanka have been on strike since 19 May 2014 demanding job permanency, better wages and improved working conditions. The striking workers and their families are occupying the cement plant premises. The Inter Company Employees Union (ICEU) called the strike.

The protesters at the Puttalam plant have blocked the main gate, halting the transport of cement. The company and contractors are trying to break the picket with the help of Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The government is determined to end the strike and has deployed police and the riot squad. The police are threatening to arrest union leaders and activists.

On 1 June 2014 the striking contract workers and their families at the Puttalam and Galle plants were attacked by hired thugs with swords and clubs, allegedly organised by the local ruling party politicians. At the Puttalam plant nine people, including an eight year old girl, were injured and sent to hospital. Four are still hospitalised. Protestors asked for police protection, who were present during the attack, but their appeals were allegedly refused. At the Galle plant one protester was injured.

The mother of the eight year old girl who was injured said that her daughter had been thrown to the ground by the thugs. "I'm afraid for my husband, who has been working for eight years as a contract worker. That's why we joined the protest."

Holcim established its Sri Lankan operations after the privatisation of the state-owned Puttalam Cement Corporation in 1996 under former president Chandrika Kumaratunga. After Holcim took over, the workforce was cut from 1500 to less than 900, with only 370 permanent workers. Some of the contract workers have worked for the company for more than 20 years. Keeping workers on contract basis is a means employed to deny the rights they would have as permanent employees and to subject them to harsher working conditions.

Workers in the production and transport sections are employed on a 12 hour shift system. Their basic monthly wage is less than US$115. In the loading section, six workers have to load 4500 cement bags during a 12 hour shift with the assistance of a conveyor belt. The workers on 'general duties' work nine hour shifts and are on daily wages of US$16.02.

Holcim Lanka dominates has more than 40% of the local market. In the recent period, it has increased the price of a 50kg bag of cement several times and profits have soared, even after paying the government's increased taxes.