Sri Lanka - Striking port workers injured in brutal military operation

The Government of Sri Lanka organised a brutal military operation on 10 December 2016, deploying hundreds of navy soldiers to disperse striking workers at Hambantota’s Magampura Port, who had occupied the port. The strikers were attacked by soldiers with poles and rifles, and kicked. Four workers were hospitalised as a result.

Nearly 500 workers had gone on strike on 7 December 2016, opposing the government’s plans to privatise the port and demanding to be made permanent employees of the government’s Ports Authority. The government had just signed an agreement to sell 80 per cent of the port company’s shares to China’s state-owned Merchants Port Holdings Company.

Sri Lankan Port Minister Arjuna Ranatunga warned that strikers would lose their jobs if they did not stop their protest and return to work immediately. He told them that if they were not at work the next day, “We have thousands of applicants waiting to take up duties.”

The aim of the government’s violent measures was to break the strike. It deployed military, police and security forces, recruited strike breakers and threatened legal action against the strikers.

On 12 December, the police forcibly removed barricades that workers had manned to prevent vehicles entering the port. The following day, the port management brought workers from another labour hire firm to load a ship with vehicles. However, these workers refused to work, walking off in support of the strikers. Navy soldiers were later seen handling the port work.

The striking workers were recruited under the Rajapakse government as trainees. After a training period, however, they were not made permanent. Instead, they were recruited to a newly set-up Magampura Port Management Company in 2013. They feared that with privatisation they were even less likely to be made permanent.

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