September 28, 2022

Oil workers in Sri Lanka protest against privatization

On Monday, around 1,500 employees of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) demonstrated against the Sri Lankan government’s plan to privatize the state-owned company. Protesters gathered near Viharamahadevi Park in central Colombo and marched about two kilometers to the Ministry of Energy.

Petroleum Corporation workers protest march in Colombo on August 22, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

For nearly three hours, they chanted outside the ministry, displaying placards with slogans such as “Stop selling CPC”, “If CPC closes, oil prices will rise” and “Defend the nationalized refinery”. .

The protest was called by the Petroleum Trade Unions Collective (PTUC), a group of 11 unions, including the Petroleum General Workers Union (PGWU), Progressive Workers Union, Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya (SLNSS) and Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya.

These unions are respectively affiliated with Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP), Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). The SLPP is the dominant party in the government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

As workers are determined to fight the privatization agenda, the PTUC called the protest a way to blow off steam to dissipate workers’ anger.

Union leaders delivered a letter to the ministry asking for the privatization to stop. This futile appeal has already been repeatedly rejected by Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekara. On Sunday, Wijesekera told the media that he had spoken with the unions and refused their request.

Petroleum Corporation workers picket in Colombo on August 22, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

The government is initially proposing to sell 800 of the CPC’s 1,200 service stations to foreign companies such as Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC), China’s Sinopec, Petroleum Development Oman and Shell. Ultimately, he intends to liquidate all of the company’s assets, including storage, refining and other facilities.

The privatization of the CPC is part of a wider austerity program dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which the Wickremesinghe government is determined to implement ruthlessly. The working class and the poor must bear the full burden of an unprecedented economic crisis, intensified by the pandemic and the proxy war between the United States and NATO against Russia.

Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves dried up, the tourism industry collapsed, and remittances and exports fell sharply. The government had no funds to import oil, which resulted in a lack of fuel for vehicles and power generation. Prolonged power outages continue.

Protests by workers and the poor culminated in a mass uprising, beginning in early April, demanding the resignation of then-president Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his government, and an end to the social catastrophe. On April 28 and May 6, millions of workers held one-day strikes in which CPC employees participated. This powerful movement forced Rajapakse to flee the country.

Police with water cannons mobilized against Petroleum Corporation workers’ protest on August 22, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

The Wickremasinghe government, however, is stepping up attacks on living standards. In addition to the CPC, it aims to privatize the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and a committee has been appointed to plan the ongoing restructurings and privatizations.

Addressing the protesters, SLNSS General Secretary Nishantha Ranaweera demagogically said, “If the government can’t run the company, the workers can. PGWU President Asoka Ranvala said, “If the minister is not ready to hear from the workers, we are ready to mobilize ordinary people to oust parliament.

Such statements are an attempt to mislead workers. These unions and the political parties to which they are affiliated are fully committed to the IMF agenda.

During the general strikes in April and May, the unions sought to divert the mass movement behind the demand for an interim government made up of all capitalist parties.

Workers cannot fight privatization and defend their jobs and wages within these pro-capitalist organizations. Workers must take the decision-making into their own hands in order to build a unified movement of the entire working class against austerity. This requires the construction of action committees, independent of unions and capitalist parties and democratically controlled by the workers themselves.

The ruthless attacks on the standard of living and basic rights of the working class can only be defeated by a political struggle to bring down the government and abolish the profit system. Production and distribution must be placed in the hands of the working class, which will reorganize the economy along socialist lines.

In order to lay the foundations for a workers’ and peasants’ government, the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) called for the creation of a Democratic and Socialist Congress of Workers and Rural Workers through action committees in each place of work and each planting.

SEP activists discussed the program with workers at Monday’s protest.

Kamal Ratnayake, a worker from the CCP’s supply division said, “I came to this protest against privatization and to defend our rights, but I have no faith in these unions.

Recalling the protests against the Rajapakse government, he said, “We have joined these protests. But what happened? Gotabhaya left but another vicious man replaced him. He agreed that “workers cannot defend their rights by replacing one capitalist government with another. Workers need an alternative political movement to fight for their rights.

Petroleum Corporation employee Anuradha Sri Nalaka (left) speaks to WSWS reporters on August 22, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

Anuradha Sri Nalaka, a clerk, denounced the government and the media campaign against CCP workers. “They say we get huge salaries. It’s not true. Overtime and other allowances have been reduced.

He added: “It’s hard to manage with the salaries we get with the rising cost of living. I earn around 42,000 rupees [$US115] after deductions.

Discussing Wickremesinghe’s proposal to form a multi-party government, he said: “All governments have come to power by deceiving us. The Rajapakse government has made various promises. But what happened? People fell from the frying pan into the fire. Wickremesinghe wants people to carry the burden.

A worker at the Muthurajawela storage facility on the outskirts of Colombo said: “They staged several protests against the granting of petrol stations to ILOC, handing over Trincomalee oil storages to India . But their limited and symbolic strikes did not stop anything.

He spoke about the JVP’s campaign for a new government with a new mandate. “I don’t believe in the JVP. I lived what they did in 1989-1990. They attacked workers and left-wing organizations. They joined the [former president] government of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The worker said he would study the SEP statement distributed to protesters calling for a Democratic and Socialist Congress. He said: “I agree that workers cannot get their rights under capitalist governments. I also agree with building an independent political movement of workers.