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Worker the centre of development, President tells ILO Sessions

SWITZERLAND: "Most workers are poorer than they ought to be. They are in a debt cycle which they cannot get out of. Are we sincerely addressing these issues of the worker? It is time for us to think very seriously whether all the covenants we are party to, will really help the worker to have a better life. In a rapidly changing world, we have to think again about many of the values and ideas we have inherited", President Mahinda Rajapaksa said yesterday.

Addressing the International Labour Organisation (ILO) sessions in Geneva, President Rajapaksa said: "A satisfied worker will be the key to a country's prosperity. "This compels me to request the United Nations, other international organisations, the developed countries, and international lending institutions to think primarily of the worker. It is the worker who is at the centre of development."

The President said: "My visits to the ILO from time to time have been a great learning experience and a particularly enriching influence on my political career which has spanned over 36 years. My political life has been constantly influenced by the aspirations of the working classes of my country. Contacts with employers too have been quite extensive and this has given me a well rounded perspective about decent work. Indeed, the value system on which I have based my political life is anchored in the well being of the working classes.

I have been impressed by the tripartite character of your organisation and this concept has been close to my heart for a considerable period of time. It is my firm belief that social dialogue based on the concept of tripartism can make a positive and substantial contribution to a country's overall development. The value of the tripartite system was confirmed in 1944 in the Declaration of Philadelphia concerning the Aims and Purposes of the ILO, formally incorporated in its constitution.

As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, it must be stated that in the case of minimum wage fixation, tripartism began long years ago. In point of fact, tripartite wage fixing machinery was first introduced into labour legislation by the enactment of the Minimum Wages Indian Labour Ordinance of 1927. The second experiment in Tripartite Wage Fixing Machinery in Sri Lanka was in the year 1944 where Wages Boards were established to fix minimum rates of wages and other terms and conditions of employment of workers in different trades.

Yet another example of Tripartite Consultative Bodies operating in my country would be the National Labour Advisory Council activated during my tenure as Minister of Labour in which leading trade unionists, employee representatives and government officials are represented to discuss and determine labour policy. I firmly belief that the promotion of genuinely tripartite national consultations, in which employers and workers' organisations make a significant contribution to the formulation of economic policies would help bring about a social consensus on economic adjustment and foster partnership in development.

The ILO has been in the forefront to upgrade the life of the workers of all sectors. It has been clamouring and has spear-headed the movement to ensure equal pay for equal work for women. Undoubtedly, whilst it has made tremendous improvements in the working conditions of women, it has been a critical influence to eliminate child labour.

Sri Lanka has always ensured that women are provided with decent work environments, equal pay, and has been very strict about employing child labour. It is appropriate for me to say that, having gained admission to the ILO in 1948, Sri Lanka has been a party to 31 ILO Conventions including its eight core conventions. This is particularly appropriate, because Sri Lanka's unique strength lies in the quality of its human resources.

We have had a proud history of worker participation in the political life of our society. Worker activists have been elected in their own right, first to the State Council in 1931, and then to Parliament since 1948. There is no doubt that it was their activism which was substantially responsible for Sri Lanka achieving unprecedented social standards for a Third World Country. I am proud to say that Sri Lanka achieved Universal Adult franchise in 1931 and women gained the right to vote, before this right was achieved in many Western countries.

In formulating our public policy, we have always tried to strike a balance among three objectives - macro economic management, development and welfare. We have provided a large number of welfare measures. Education has been compulsory for all children below 14 years. We have a proud inheritance of providing free education in the government schools, universities and our technical colleges. We have provided free medical care to all our citizens and we do provide certain consumables at a subsidised rate to those below the poverty line.

Our compliance with global standards has gained Sri Lanka the right to market its garments under the slogan "garments without guilt".With all these welfare measures and a sharp focus on the development of the human being, it's no wonder Sri Lanka enjoys a very high rating in the UN development index at 93. We are also on the way to achieving or surpassing many of the Millennium Development Goals. All these benefit the worker, the rural farmer and the self employed.

Our Government will continue to follow socially oriented policies with the interest of the working classes uppermost. It is with that in mind we launched our rural development movement "Gama Neguma" - the revival of the village - to improve the life of the rural masses who have tended to be left behind by the rapid development of the cities. This programme encompasses all aspects of rural life including livelihoods of people and will uplift rural communities. The theme of this programme is central to the aims of ILO - the empowerment of people and the provision of opportunity for the fullest development of the human personality.

We are proud that our social attitudes have been conditioned by a caring culture nurtured over two millennia. Sri Lanka, as a predominantly Buddhist country, has always had a very strong compassionate approach to fellow human beings. This is a cultural dimension which we share with our neighbours. In this context, I would also like to mention that, unlike those countries that discovered human rights in the aftermath of the massive destruction caused by global wars and bloody social revolutions, caring for fellow human beings has been very much a part of our philosophy for thousands of years.

This rich inheritance will be part of our policies in the future as well. Of course, in the midst of conflict there may be lapses on the part of individuals. However, our efforts are consciously directed towards addressing these lapses so that our intrinsically caring nature can dominate our policies even at the most difficult of times.

One of the biggest challenges confronting our carefully developed social institutions is the threat of terrorism, which is today a matter of global concern. A ruthless terrorist group, the LTTE, continues to challenge us, determined to force us to compromise on the standards that we have developed over the years.

Terrorism has no place in the contemporary world. As a Government, we are not prepared, at any cost, to bow down to terrorism. Would any of your governments submit to terrorism had they been in our position? However, we are determined that in a democracy like ours where political views can be expressed freely, political objectives must be realised through negotiation and dialogue and through compromise. There can be no room for extremism, and even less for violence.

My government has been able to form a coalition of 13 democratic political parties to work in harmony for the well being of the country. Most of them opposed me at the Presidential election. All Muslim parties and Tamil parties except one are in my government. We are a multi ethnic government. Such a Government cannot and will not discriminate any minority groups.

When I assumed the Presidency of my country in November 2005, I had already declared that I was willing to talk to the LTTE and even its leader, towards a negotiated settlement of the conflict we have been facing for over twenty years. After two weeks of my assumption of the Presidency, the LTTE commenced its killing spree, by killing a group of unarmed soldiers taking food to their colleagues. It continued killing innocent civilians and soldiers regularly.

Then in April 2006, just five months into my Presidency, they attempted to kill the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army in Colombo while he was on his way home. Fortunately, the suicide bomber failed to assassinate him. Even then, our Armed Forces did not retaliate, but only took deterrent action. In June 2006, exactly a year ago, the LTTE closed an agricultural canal that provided water to nearly 30,000 acres of rice fields and 15,000 families. No amount of appeals to re-open the canal softened them, and the Armed Forces had to forcibly open the canal.

Thereafter, the LTTE evicted 53,000 Muslims from the town of Muttur and later launched a massive attack on Jaffna and Trincomalee harbour. It is then that we had to clear the entire East and I am glad to say that we are now successfully resettling the people who fled their homes due to the escalation of the conflict.

Today, there is a misunderstanding and false propaganda that we are involved in ethnic cleansing. This is absolutely false. I must remind this august assembly that it is the LTTE which resorted to heavy ethnic cleansing from the early nineteen eighties. They evicted all the Muslims and the Sinhalese from the North.

Those countries afflicted with the menace of terrorism know very well what they have to undergo. These terrorist outfits cannot be contained easily. Our Armed Forces and the Police have had to be extra smart in containing the LTTE.

I want to assure you that our Armed forces and the Police are among the most disciplined in the world, and they have great respect for human rights. Any lapses on their part will be promptly investigated and corrective action taken. But I am sad to say that there has been so much of false propaganda against the Sri Lankan Armed forces and the Police that is being taken so seriously by the rest of the world.

Recently, there was much concern when we cleared some lodging houses in Colombo. On average 20,000 persons occupy these lodges and only 302 persons were the subject of this evacuation. In fact many left voluntarily. Please do not forget that over sixty per cent living in Colombo are Tamils and Muslims. Almost all suicide bombers have operated from these lodging houses, and therefore, we have had to keep an extra vigil over them. As our government declared, if any inconvenience was caused to innocent persons, we regret it very much.

A Presidential Commission of Inquiry has been set up to investigate into some of the killings that had happened in the past. Its work is being observed by an International Independent Group of Eminent Persons. All the observers came on our invitation as we want to establish the truth. Very few Governments would have done what we did and none has done it so far. We are open to scrutiny because we respect human rights, democracy and the freedom of the people. Unfortunately, it is our flexibility and sincerity that seems to encourage the global non governmental community to demand further involvement.

We do not believe in a military solution. Therefore, I invited all democratic political parties in Parliament to form an All Party Conference, the APC. The purpose of the APC is to formulate political proposals, to ensure political reform and through that address the grievances of the minorities. An All Party Representative Committee is in the process of examining an array of proposals that have been submitted. I firmly believe that the outcome of this process will be satisfactory. We look to our friends around the world to assist in our hour of need.

My party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, also submitted a set of proposals which proposed devolution to the district level. Prior to the establishment of Provincial Councils in 1988, government effectively dealt with people's issues with a network of 25 district secretariats. In order to devolve power to the lowest level possible, the SLFP proposed the District level devolution, while creating a Grama Rajya, quite similar to the Panchyati raj system in India.

We strongly believe that people at the grass-root level will be truly empowered if we adopt the district level devolution. We expect this process of finding the right solution to political reform, to continue evolving. However, we await the final outcome of the discussions at the APC - a set of reform proposals through consensus among the members of the All Party Conference.

I have had the good fortune of being an employee, a trade unionist and a Labour Minister. All these opportunities and tripartism have given me the privilege of learning, of acquiring the ability to be flexible and to be practical in my thinking. That is why I am able to work with a large number of political parties within the government and provide a platform for consensual politics and governance. I also want to ensure that workers become a strong force in our societal fabric, with the ability to take part fully in all aspects of National life.

Our efforts must be to look at labour afresh where ILO has worked over a period of time to bring about a decent work agenda. A decent work agenda is important because it is central to peoples' lives. Work is also at the heart of politics. As a politician, these are some of the issues that I have seen which people vote on. It has been said that elections are won and lost on promises, successes and failures to deliver opportunities for work. Therefore, it is important that we have high quality in the work place.

My belief is that a satisfied worker will be the key to a country's prosperity. This compels me to request the United Nations, other international organisations, the developed countries, and international lending institutions to think primarily of the worker. It is the worker who is at the centre of development. In this context, the suspension of post tsunami recovery aid by certain countries is a direct blow to the workers themselves.

Lending policies and conditions for assistance need to be attuned to ensure that lives of the worker are made better. A satisfied worker will also ensure corporate profitability. A worker whether in the agricultural, industrial, commercial or any other sector, is the core of development.

Most workers in the developing world come from rural environments. Unless we raise the dignity of the rural worker, the rural peasant, the rural technologist, the rural artisan, we will never be able to uplift our rural areas and of course the majority of the working class. I make a fervent appeal, therefore, to this august assembly, whose heart is with the worker, to consider these thoughts and deliberate on policies that will make the worker, a satisfied person and the environment in which he lives, mostly rural areas, to be more conducive to a pleasant and productive life.

I must sincerely thank the ILO, the oldest specialized institution in the UN system, for being an organisation that has encouraged the whole world to recognize the value of the worker. This is one organisation which concentrates on the individual, his skills, his happiness, his working conditions, occupational health and safety and also the environment in which the work is done.

I am also grateful to the Director General for extending this rare invitation and conferring upon me the honour to address this august assembly. I wish to say that our commitment to the ideals of the ILO, whatever challenges we may confront, remains steadfast. We will continue to look after and develop our democratic institutions and improve the life of the worker.

Let me conclude by saying that we will never shirk our responsibility to ensure a better future for the working masses of Sri Lanka. We will always be guided by the caring nature that we inherited from our forefathers, as we look forward to the future. In conclusion, let me thank all those present for your kind attention and I sincerely hope there will be many more future Heads of State and Government from among the Labour ministers present here today.

May the Noble Triple Gem bless you all."


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service

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