Multiplicity of trade unions: issues & challenges in Sri Lanka.

AuthorGamage, Prasadini N.


Trade unions are a major component of the modern industrial relations system. A trade union is an organization tailored by workers to protect their interest, improve their working conditions etc (Monappa, 2007). Trade unions are voluntary associations of workers formed to promote and protect their inertest through collective endeavor. As far as industrial relations is concerned, trade unions constitute an integral part of the relationship between employers and employees.

Employees constantly engage in bargaining with the employer for working conditions, fair wages, job security etc. for their members and also to defend them against any encroachment, injustice and exploitation by their employer (Taher, 1999). Trade unions were formulated by the employees for a number of reasons. Individual workers found that it was more advantageous to band together and seek to establish their terms and conditions of employment. They thought that if they bargain as individuals, employer would have a better leverage and thus an individual would not matter as much as a group in terms of the running of the enterprise. Employers also found it advantageous to deal with a group rather than handle disputes with each individual employee in the long run.

According to the Trade Unions Ordinance No 14 of 1935 of Sri Lanka, a trade union is an association or a combination of workmen or employers whether temporary or permanent and it may have at least the following objectives: regulation of relation between workmen and employers or between workmen and workmen or between employers and employers or imposing of restrictive conditions on the conduct of any trade or business, or representation of either workmen or employers in trade disputes or promotion or organization of financing of strikes or lockouts in any trade or industry or provision of pay or other benefits for its members during a strike or lockout.

Evolution of Trade Unions in Sri Lanka

The history of trade unionism in Sri Lanka dates back to 1890's. The plantation industry pioneered by the British in 1830s resulted in the emergence of the first group of blue collar working class in Sri Lanka. Disinclination of the indigenous workers to work in those plantations paved the way to the British rulers to bring thousands of Tamils from the southern parts of India. Even though they had to face severe problems such as lack of housing, poor wages, poor sanitary conditions etc they did not struggle against their masters because they were uneducated. As foreigners, their life was limited to plantation, rigid rules etc (Jayawardene, 1971).

But as a result of the pressure exerted by the Madras based Colonial Government of India, the Ceylon Colonial Government was compelled to introduce minimum labour standards to safeguard the rights of Tamil immigrant laborers. On the other hand in the light of the expansion of the plantation industry a number of other industries too emerged such as highway construction, railway transportation, banking, printing, postal service etc. The workers who were employed in these organizations were Sri Lankan indigenous workers and were subject to labor exploitation. During that time trade unions were taboo and strikes were treated as criminal offences under the Service Contract Ordinance.

The first person to introduce the idea of trade unions in Sri Lanka was A. E. Bultigens. The first formal strike action was launched by fifty employees of British owned H.W. Cave Company, the largest firm of printers and book sellers in Colombo on the grounds of delay in the payment of wages. On the 17th of September 1893, the strikers held a meeting and formed the "Ceylon Printers Society" the first trade union not only in Sri Lanka but also in South Asia.

In the year following the printers' agitation grew and strikes became a common feature of the urban working class and some middle class due to lack of proper education. The interconnection between political and religious upbringings was pivotal in triggering labor unrest which be came more explicit between 1906 and 1915. The strike of carters in 1906 was the first occasion when resistance to authority by a significant section of the working class met with success. The formation of Ceylon Labor Party in 1928 and the All Ceylon Trade Union Congress was successful attempts by labor leaders to gain independence and to strengthen the image of labor in politics. Immigrant Controllers Department was transformed into the Labor Department in 1931 and a separate minister was appointed by the government to look into labor related matters.

The Trade Unions Ordinance was introduced in 1935 and both employers and employees got the opportunity to legally register their trade unions. But according to the provisions of the ordinance the right to organize was limited to private sector. As a result the state sector employees protested heavily against this injustice.

Subsequently, the government was compelled to make necessary amendments to the Trade Unions Ordinance by Act No 15 of 1948. But even the amended act includes some restrictions for government officers such as judicial officers, members of the police and armed forces, prison officers and members of the agricultural corps as they were not permitted to form and join trade unions.

By this time, the politicization and multiplicity of trade union had established itself as one of the core characteristics of the employee unions in Sri Lanka. In 1945 there were 84 trade unions and in 1946 there were 114. By 1955, 310 trade unions were established. In 1972, the government of Sri Lanka ratified ILO convention No 98 on Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining and in 1995 convention No 87 on Freedom of Association. An employee's right to form and join a trade union is recognized by the superior law of the country. According to the Article 14(1) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka every citizen of Sri Lanka has the freedom of association and the freedom to form and join a trade union.

Multiplicity of Trade Unions

The term 'multi-unionism' is used to describe the situation in which workers are represented by more than one union for the purposes of collective bargaining (Gospel & Parmer, 1993). Multi-unionism cannot be defined precisely because descriptions of union structure are dependent upon the structure of collective bargaining. Employers might recognize a number of unions for the purposes of industry-wide collective bargaining, but if each employer or establishment recognized only one of these unions, then multi-unionism would not exist under a system of company or plant bargaining.

Multi-unionism cannot be defined precisely because descriptions of union structure are dependent upon the structure of collective bargaining.


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