YAHAPALANA AS A “WAKE UP CALL” Part 2
Posted on August 20th, 2018

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Professionals have become alarmed over certain decisions taken by the Yahapalana government, which they feel are not in the national interest. This essay looks at the mobilization of professional organizations against Yahapalana decisions.

An organization named Eliya”, consisting of professionals, was launched by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in September 2017   to draw attention to the new Constitution that the Yahapalana government   is planning. ‘Eliya” was opposed to the new Constitution. ‘Eliya’ did not trust the government that was drafting it. ’Eliya’ is very active today. It holds meetings around the island. Here is a description of ‘Eliya’s first meeting.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and several leading politicians, intellectuals, artists and professionals participated at the inauguration, reported the media. Speakers included Ven. Professor Medagoda Abhayatissa , former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Presidents Counsel Manohara de Silva, Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, Major General Kamal Gunaratne, former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivad Cabraal, former Sri Lanka Permanent Representative to the UN Tamara Kunanayagam, former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Dr. Dayan Jayatillake and Dr. Sita Arambepola.

Our aim is to rally the masses to do whatever is necessary to prevent the introduction of a new Constitution,” said Gotabhaya at the inauguration. A new Constitution should not be permitted to reverse the victories achieved by defeating terrorism and reuniting the country as a unitary State.

The new Constitution was being drafted to appease international organisations and foreign governments that tried to prevent the war from being finished, as well as separatist Tamil politicians in the country. One can see where the project to draft a new Constitution is headed, when looking at the people who are behind it, and who it was for. This is the same group who supported the LTTE. They are now trying to achieve through a different route, what they failed to achieve through war and terrorism,” said Gotabhaya.

Lawyer Manohara De Silva said the new Constitution came about soon after the 2015 General Election, when the United Nations Human Rights Council passed Resolution 30/1. This Resolution included commitments to immediately implement the 13th Amendment in full and introducing further Amendments to the Constitution to devolve powers to the provinces.13th Amendment was designed to divide the country and the purpose of the new Constitution was to lay the legal groundwork to implement it in full.

Former Ambassador to Geneva, Tamara Kunanayagam said, that at the same time that a new Constitution was being discussed, a plethora of radical reforms” were also being rushed through. The fact that many of these reforms are being challenged as unconstitutional indicates that the new Constitution is aimed at making what is unconstitutional today, constitutional tomorrow. In other words, making legal, what is illegal by a simple trick of changing the Law.

Maj.Gen. (Rtd) Kamal Gunaratne said he spent 26 years of his 35-year military career in the North and East. Most of the Army Officers who are retired today, had served in the North and East during the war. As people who spent so many years with the people in those areas as their liberators, we know what they want. None of them want police powers, judicial powers, devolution, or a separate State. All they want is to live in peace. The country’s stupid rulers’ can’t comprehend that centralizing power keeps the country together, while devolution of powers will only lead to separation.

Government servants usually keep mum about the heavy politicization of the government services. But in August 2017, these government servants suddenly spoke up. The Government and Provincial Government Trade Union Federation (GPGTUF) wrote to President Sirisena in August 2017, saying public servants should be freed from political influences and be given opportunity to act independently. Abolition of politically driven trade unions and ending political appointments in the government sector are prerequisites for an independent public service.

The numerous conflicts inside a government institution between trade unions holding different political views have a negative impact on the service. Political appointments and politically driven trade unions   also contribute to the general public’s lack of respect towards government service. politically  controlled trade unions should be eliminated.  In order to prevent political appointments, recruitment to the government service should be via competitive exams only,  said GPGTUF.

Ceylon Federation of Labour, Ceylon Mercantile Union, Ceylon Bank Employees Union and Ceylon Estate Staff Union wanted the EPF (Employees Provident Fund) protected from vultures. They found, in July 2018 that the ADB had got the US-based Aries Group    to make recommendations for the reform of the EPF. The objective was to get the EPF to invest in high yielding securities including the stock market. EPF’s Rs.1.7 trillion was going to be used to give a much needed fillip to the sagging capital market, observed the unions.

Further, EPF members would be given a choice of multiple investment funds to choose from, including offshore investments, depending on their own risk/reward profile preference. The unions urged the Government to consult the EPF members before taking a decision. The Department of Labour has procedures for conducting workplace level referendum which could be used for the purpose.

The unions also pointed out that the ADB itself admits the private sector bond market in Sri Lanka is still in its nascent stage. The proposed diversification of investment into offshore instruments, if one is to go by our experience with Greek bonds, is bound to be catastrophic,” the unions said.

These four unions wrote to President Sirisena saying that the government must not to lose sight of the original objectives of the EPF which is to provide tax free savings benefit for the individual worker at retirement. Developing the capital market or coming to its rescue is not a part of its objectives. Instead of meddling with the EPF the government should create a national old age pension scheme outside the EPF so that all those who reach retirement age will stand to benefit.

The engineers and technicians of Ceylon Electivity Board found that  in addition to providing electricity, they now had to rescue  the country from a   massive energy crisis created by Yahapalana .They  soundly condemned the Yahapalana policy of not building  new power plants, dropping coal and  wanting to go for LNG and renewable energy. This decision was premature. The country needed an affordable uninterrupted power supply and for this, coal must be included.

The CEB made a set of formal demands. ‘We want the government to approve our electricity plan (LCLTGEP), allocate land and other facilities necessary for the construction low cost coal power plants, devise a proper mechanism to provide a government subsidy for the CEB for providing electricity to customers at a subsidized price and amend the Sri Lanka Electricity Act No 20 of 2009 to minimize ‘unnecessary impediments to the smooth function of CEB. CEB also wanted the Director General of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL)  PUCSL, removed and ‘professionals with highest integrity and unblemished record appointed to key posts in the PUCSL.

The government took no notice. So CEBEU commenced a work-to-rule campaign in May 2018. They would only work during the office working hours, they said. This means engineers will not carry out maintenance after 4.15 pm. and their members would not be on on call” duty to attend to any urgent breakdown of power. If their demands remain unmet, they would also withdraw from night duty in the  control centers of power stations. The result will be power outages.

The CEBEU said it will boycott all meetings with PUCSL, not respond to letter or requests and  will not keep any sort of communication with you”. It will also keep away from any other meetings that are attended by  the DG of the PUCSL. They will also not sit on the meetings of Technical Evaluation Committees, tender boards, joint working groups, project groups, and special assignments.

People’s Bank Officers’ Association and the People’s Bank Unit of the Ceylon Bank Employees’ Union protested against attempts by its top management  to give an extension of service to its CEO/GM even after he reaches 60 years of age in October 2018. The Bank’s Chairman had informed COPE that a 6-month service extension had been sought for the GM,  to train the incoming GM. COPE, however, had observed that state banks had a policy of not giving an extension to officers over 60 years.

The Bank’s trade unions said there are sufficient experienced and qualified officers to take over as the new  GM and the management should have taken steps to identify and train them, to enable one of them to take over. The present GM and his predecessor had been paid a whopping Rs 75 million each, in salary arrears based on a 10% annual pay hike agreement observed COPE .

Twenty-four Road Development Authority trade unions, including the UNP-allied Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya and the SLFP-allied Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya,  had also sent a petition to Highways Minister in 2017,  opposing the proposal to develop an  expressway network. The development of the expressway network will lead to a steep increase in the number of users. If privatized, the income will go to private parties, not the government .
The Mechanical Engineering Sectional Committee of the Institution of Engineers in association with the Sri Lanka Society of Transport & Logistics held a panel discussion in November 2017, on expressways. The panel  consisted of Prof. Amal S. Kumarage, retired GM of Railways Priyal de Silva and railway consultant Ranjith L. Dissanayake.

The Panel questioned the need for an expensive four lane expressway with interchanges for Kandy. This will create  new problems of congestion in  the Kandy area. It will  not connect Kandy in one hour  because the traffic will increase. An 80 kmph two-lane highway from Potuhera to Galagedera  was better. It would reduce the projected cost by at least 60 percent and the travel time difference will only be 5 minutes, Better railway access plus a two-lane highway can be built for what is being proposed to be spent on a four-lane expressway and  the travel time would be at the most 115 minutes,

The panel  said that an intercity express railway network to Kandy which can be extended to other cities, would  provide  superior mobility to the hill capital at a fraction of the cost. It will cost less and is the path followed by  many countries today. The availability of different access modes to  railway stations will make door to door travel not only fast, but comfortable and economically sustainable.” The  panel  showed studies of four different railway traces from Rambukkana to Kandy for a new line capable of connecting Kandy from Colombo within 90 minutes

In September 2017 the Road Development Authority Engineers’ Association (RDAEA) strongly criticized  the Yahapalana plan to give the  management of existing and future expressways to an international company. These  expressways generates income and do not warrant privatization, the Association  said . Yahapalana was going to use the  advance payment received from the international company to complete three other expressways. The RDAEA had come to know of this,  only through a draft newspaper advertisement that  they happened to see. Using the Right to Information Act the  Association  has asked for copies of all documents, including Cabinet papers, for scrutiny. The RDAEA has  also written to President  Sirisena requesting a meeting.

The RDA has a deposit of five billion rupees with the Expressway Operation, Maintenance and Management  Division, which is intended for use in periodic maintenance of expressways, said the RDAEU. Yahapalana government wishes to use around Rs 4 billion of this to settle contractor bills of other divisions. These were  projects where the tenders and work orders had been issued, beyond budget allocations.

The union has, once again, invoked the RTI Act to obtain information, inter alia, on  tenders and work orders; works issued/attended by Construction Division and EOMM Division; and any other special works including estimate amounts and tendered amounts; and money availability according to the approved programme for 2017, including non-RDA roadworks.

The Sri Lanka Police Inspectors’ Association filed Fundamental Rights application against the National Police Commission (NPC) with regard to a  move to recruit 20 graduates as Assistant Superintendents of Police (ASPs).The Inspectors’ Association has alleged that such direct enlistment will deprive its members of  the chance of promotion. The SC has suspended the move pending further hearing.

The Inspectors’ Association  is not  against  a few direct recruitments to ASP level, but opposes the move to accommodate 20 new ASPs simultaneously at the expense of those who toiled their way up. 20 direct ASPs would simply obstruct the legitimate path of Inspectors’ Association members, thereby demoralizing the inspectorate. there had been two direct enlistments in 1982, three in 1985, two in 1986, four in 1987, three in 1998, seven in 1999, 15 in 2001 and 14 in 2008.. Sources said that a person who had joined the service as a probationary Sub Inspector would find it impossible to secure a higher rank if the top administration was clogged with graduates. Sources pointed out that those bent on taking 20 graduates simultaneously, had forgotten there were only 12 slots for Senior DIGs and 45 for DIGs.

The Customs officers  have had more than one disagreement with Yahapalana  government .Customs officers objected to the repeal of the existing Customs Ordinance. The Ministry of Finance is drafting a new Customs Ordinance, under the direction of the Prime Minister, on the flimsy grounds that the existing Act is ‘old’. Customs officers stated that the  Customs Ordinance has worked well all these years. The law had changed periodically, over time, through amendments  and numerous court cases and was perfectly up to date. Any changes should be made every carefully.

The Ministry is trying to amend the Customs Ordinance in secret, to weaken the powers of Customs officials,  charged the  All Ceylon Customs Services Union . The changes were intended to help ‘racketeers’. The existing Act had become a headache for racketeers and smugglers and those who wished to avoid paying taxes. Fraudsters and racketeers could engage in frauds without any fear if the Act was changed..

The Customs officers vehemently objected to the  proposed Customs Act, when they saw it.  They said that it would help business tycoons while reducing the powers of Customs Officers”. Customs officers wanted the Act amended in the manner suggested by the Customs officials. But the Finance Ministry was not willing to do so.

Customs officers rarely engage in trade union work, they are well placed and well looked after, observed Chandraprema. But in this case, due to the gravity of the matter, Customs officers took trade union action. In September 2016, eight Customs Unions engaged in a two day work to rule. They also staged a protest outside the Customs Headquarters.

Customs trade unions said in January 2017, that they will intensify their protest campaign against the draft bill and vowed to defeat it by exerting maximum pressure in the  near future. They stated their experience in writing as follows.

The Staff Officers’ Union, the Customs Superintendents Union and the Customs Officers’ union formed the ‘Customs Unions Unity’ and launched a campaign against abolishing the Customs Ordinance. The other unions refused to join. So we were forced to form a separate union unity to fight against abolishing the Customs Ordinance. That was how the Reguwa Surakeeme Sanwidhanaya” came into effect with the participation of four unions from Customs and one wharf union.

We started an awareness program aiming at the general public whose opinion is not in favor of us. We carried out an island wide poster campaign and distributed a leaflet too. We also had several press releases. Then we launched a petition signing campaign. But we could not accomplish it because some misled members within the unity itself abandoned it, complaining that we are working to a political agenda. Though the petition signing campaign was a failure, it influenced the leaders of the Unions Unity to form a new unity called Customs Trade Unions Alliance” including all unions in the Customs.

So, forgetting about the bitter past, we joined the Customs Trade Union Alliance and did our best in the campaign against abolishing the Customs Ordinance. Then the work-to-rule campaign started and the Minister offered discussions to the unions. So we had two symposiums, including the customs administration, the trade unions, and the stake holders in the Kingsbury hotel at the expense of the Customs Management fund. At the first symposium the stake holders were allowed to present their grievances. So they did. And at the second symposium their grievances were answered.

.After about two months’ lapse we were invited for a two day workshop at the Galle Face hotel. With the invitation we were given a 94 page document written by the Customs Ordinance Amendment Committee appointed by the DG. The committee is comprised of six members and the document written by them has been named as Proposal for a New Customs Act” .We got it on Tuesday and we had been asked to produce our proposals regarding the document two days prior to the workshop which was to be held on Saturday and Sunday. As we had not enough time even to read document in depth we went to the workshop empty handed and we were just on lookers there.

The entire workshop was handled by  one person, Mr. Raj Mohan and we found that the document was totally based on the new international Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) with the WTO. According to our knowledge WTO is a cat’s paw of the American imperialism that has been looting the countries like ours all around the world.

While we were discussing all these contradictions among ourselves and preparing a detailed letter to the DGC, we got the invitation for today’s (23.1.17) workshop. It of course is a command rather than an invitation. The invitation letters’ heading contradicts  its’ content. While the heading says about a workshop to produce amendments to the customs ordinance the content says about the disagreed matters in the earlier workshops

.Therefore, taking all these into consideration,  our executive committee decided to quit these bogus discussions heading towards a new Customs Act that facilitate the racketeers to suck the country’s wealth and thrive themselves. We also decided to continue the campaign against abolishing the Customs Ordinance concluded  the statement.

Another Customs related issue arose in 2018. Customs Staff Officers’ Union, the Customs Superintendents’ Union and the Customs Officers’ Union , the three unions representing Customs officers ,protested to the Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera in 2018 over  a proposal to amend the scheme rewarding Customs officers for detections.

The Minster was proposing to distribute 50% of the penalty imposed on offenders apprehended by Sri Lanka Customs among the 1,600 employees of the Department, with 10% of the fine given to the Officers who made the detection, while the balance 40% to be distributed equally among other employees. This was to be a temporary measure till amendments are introduced to the Customs Ordinance to change the method of awarding rewards.

Minster  said that existing provisions of the Customs Ordinance on granting rewards to Customs officers were unfair, as it benefited only a few individuals. Under these provisions, those conducting raids would get 50% of the fine imposed on the offenders apprehended by Sri Lanka Customs. There was one officer who earned Rs 100 million a month as rewards, while there were also officers who earned Rs 12 million or more a year,”

Customs  officers said it was wrong to single out such officers, as they were able to make such detections based on their own special skills. Officers who make detections are highly skilled and experienced and the rewards anyway, are given only after paying income taxes. It is not something that any Customs officer can do. If this scheme is introduced, it may lead to such officers becoming discouraged.

Amending the reward scheme would also affect informants, many of whom give valuable tip-offs to Customs that result in large detections. If they suddenly find that the amount given to them as rewards has reduced, they too may become discouraged, There was no plan to initiate trade union action over the proposal, but Unions want to meet the Minister to voice their opposition to the move and explain matters”, the official added.

The professional organizations have mobilized in a never before seen manner, to   challenge the Yahapalana FTAs with India and Singapore. The professions   usually stay aloof from economic matters since economics is outside their expertise, but this time they have got very agitated. Their future is also affected by these FTAs, but the professions are not considering only that, they are also looking at the national    consequences of these FTA

Professional groups, who had discussions with the government on proposed Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with India, China, and Singapore, have been opposing the proposed FTAs on the basis that certain fundamental laws and guidelines need to be set in place first before FTAs are formalized.

Here is a comprehensive listing of the various meetings and discussions. In March 2016 Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) organized a public forum on the ECTA to be signed with India.  The five speakers, all professionals, one after the other   rejected the planned ECTA. Here are some of the observations made at the SLAAS forum.

This is not an economic issue it is basically a political one to appease India. Earlier FTA was beneficial to India and not to Sri Lanka. In marble and granite a minimum floor price was imposed to hurt Sri Lanka exports, in the case of fresh fruit and tea, there was excessive time in lab tests.

When it comes to bilateral trade agreements, India is much more advanced than Sri Lanka. India has signed agreements with Singapore, South Korea and India’s legal system and regulatory framework has been calibrated to that level.

GATS guidelines specify that after a country had agreed to open up specific sectors, they cannot thereafter apply any new licensing and qualification requirements to that profession. This is prohibited.   India has requested that the current laws in Sri Lanka which are full of loopholes should not be changed.

The professional bodies of Sri Lanka have identified 30 other  pieces of legislation which need  to be amended  before signing FTA,  in immigration,  banking etc.

The regulatory framework of Sri Lanka is defective   There are no legally empowered bodies in Sri Lanka which require professional to register under their respective categories. Only exceptions are Sri Lanka Medical Council and institute of Chartered Accountants. Professions now request Sri Lanka to get the regulatory framework in order before signing the agreement.

India has a very sophisticated system of professional registration. India has controls for all its professions, so there is no way that a mutual recognition agreement could be signed. Indian professionals will be able to flood Sri Lanka without any restrictions as there are no accrediting requirements at the Sri Lanka end.   However, Sri Lanka professionals cannot enter India. And if they try India can do to them, what they are doing to the Sri Lanka exporters.

Sri Lanka’s expertise was far better than anything that India can offer in IT and medicine. IT and naval engineering field will be opened up to India through the FTA .  It is not true that there is a dearth of IT professionals in Sri Lanka. We have enough to meet the demand now and in the next several years. Why was IT selected as a service that India could provide. If ECTA comes then IT wages will be reduced, as cheaper labor will come from India, it will also tarnish Sri Lanka image as a centre of excellence and Sri Lanka will lose its state as a niche software developer centre for investors.

This SLAAS meeting also declared that   the Sri Lanka Joint Study Group for  CEPA in 2003 consisted of  18 persons, some of whom were ex officio appointments, The names included  Ken Balendra as  Co Chairman of Joint Study group, Arjuna Mahendra Chairman BOI,  R. Paskaralingam, advisor to  Prime Minister,  N. Pathmanathan, Mano Selvanathan, Chairman Korea  Lanka garments, K Shanmugalingam Chairman Tariff Advisory Council,  and R S Selvaratnam, Chairman EDB.  Many of the CEPA committee are in the ECTA committee as well.

In October 2016 eleven trade unions including GMOA had laid down conditions for signing ECTA or any other FTA. They want the existing GATS agreement amended removing the   negative impacts on Sri Lanka, they want the existing FTAs evaluated before signing a new one, and they also want a national trade policy for Sri Lanka.

In September 2016, the Computer Society of Sri Lanka also urged the government to ensure safeguards to protect the IT professionals of Sri Lanka. Their qualifications must be checked, and limited period visas issued. Also they must get CSSL membership. Working visas must be linked to a letter from a Sri Lanka company and visa must be linked to that company. The company must be incorporated in Sri Lanka. However, they must first try to recruit locally. There must be a minimum level of Sri Lanka   employees in the company. That must be set down. The foreign national must pay tax to Inland Revenue here. The government should prevent freelancers coming here.

 

In 2018 many professional organizations, independent of each other, have shown concern about the Singapore and India FTAs. The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) said in 2018 the government was carrying out covert negotiations on the India – Sri Lanka Economic and Technology Corporation Agreement (ISLETCA). India already had its trade policy in place and, therefore, Sri Lanka would be the loser.

GMOA said foreign nationals were active in the ETCA negotiations with India. There were foreign nationals in the Sri Lanka delegation to India for ETCA negotiations, The team also contained persons working in industries which had dealings with India. Both had vested interests. GMOA had alerted President Sirisena to the danger of allowing foreigners to formulate a national policy on trade. The country had enough and more intellectuals capable of formulating the policy.

GMOA urged government to update the GATT General agreement on trade and services and the commitments imposed on Sri Lanka by the WTO before signing any bilateral or multilateral document like ECTA. Sri Lanka has not revised its GATT commitment for the last two decades whereas other countries had done so every five or six years. GMOA observed that India had opened up only few jobs to outsiders but Sri Lanka had opened up all sectors except a few unimportant ones. Lastly, GMOA noted that there is no definition of a specialist doctor in the private sector. Also no definition for many professionals including engineers and IT professionals.

The Society of Information Technology Professionals (SITP) of Sri Lanka  made a statement in May 2018 on the trade agreement with Singapore. The statement said,  We all know that Sri Lanka-Singapore FTA was approved by the Cabinet of Sri Lanka without properly studying the content or the consequences. The Ministry of Trade and Industry of Singapore has stated that the pact has saved at least 10 million USD per year for Singapore. This means that the government of Sri Lanka loses at least 1500 million rupees of annual tax revenue by importing from Singapore. What Sri Lanka got in return from this agreement is hilarious as 99% of the goods which were included in the Singapore offer to reduce tax were already tariff free for any country including Sri Lanka.

 

SITP   continued, The Rule of Origin which measures the value addition by the partner country to a certain product to be eligible for the tariff wavering has been poorly incorporated in the agreement. This will encourage transshipments leading to goods manufactured in other countries to flow into Sri Lanka via tariff free Singapore. This will be a grave blow to the local producers.

 

On ECTA, the SITP said,   it is necessary to mobilize the masses against the ECTA implications. We asked Saman Kelegama who had  drafted the agreement and received no proper answer. He is usually the advisor regardless of government change. This type of agreement is intended to get the market access for bigger players like multinationals replacing the small and medium entrepreneurs in local markets and to  take over government owned institutions when they are privatized.  ECTA would  also help secure the north east vote base in Sri Lanka  for Yahapalana at the next election.

 

Recently, Sri Lanka agreed to provide laundry service of the hospitals of the Western province to an Indian company.  This agreement with an Indian company is a good prototype to understand what would happen in all other sectors like education, transportation, financial services, sanitary services, energy, telecommunications, entertainment, information technology and tourism, said SITP.

 

Nobody has estimated or cared about the number of job losses to Sri Lankans from these FTAs. Indian companies will replace Sri Lankan entrepreneurs, CEOs, managers, clerks and laborers with their men. Indian IT will be able to arrive here even without being employed by an company and once in, will benefit as equal to the Sri Lanka IT and this will lower the salaries, SITP continued.

 

Negotiations for  a trade agreement with China are also taking place.  The local industrialists will have to close their factories and watch the competition between Indian and Chinese tariff free commodities in the Sri Lankan market, concluded SITP.

 

SITP  had another issue to deal with. SITP  vehemently condemned  the  ‘irresponsible and unwise’ comment made by State Minister Eran Wickramaratne recently that “Sri Lanka would soon introduce legislation for the Immigration Controller to act as the sole authority to expedite bringing in foreigners to be employed in the ICT sector in Sri Lanka”

 

Eran Wickramaratne  had said “earlier the company concerned has to make an application to the relevant Ministry then to the ICTA Agency and then the Department of Immigration to gain approval. This takes a long time and now we have come up with a system where the Immigration Controller would be given the powers to approve a working Visa.

 

We vehemently condemn  this irresponsible and unwise comment, said SITP. Yahapalana ministers are  keen to provide ICT jobs in Sri Lanka to foreign professionals when there is no shortage of ICT professionals in Sri Lanka “Sri Lanka is producing more than 7,000 ICT graduates annually. Sri Lankan ministers should put their efforts in finding more job opportunities to Sri Lankan ICT professionals in developed countries to earn foreign exchange to the country. Unfortunately, the government  is working very hard to promote exactly the opposite of that. . We urge people of this country to be vigilant of these kinds of acts, which put the Sri Lankan economy in trouble, create a lot of social issues, and ultimately put the national security in jeopardy.

 

The   Association of Engineers (AoE)  handed over a letter to President  Sirisena  in 2018 asking him to repeal the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (SLSFTA) . We have held discussions with a large number of representatives from professional bodies and trade unions. If the government is not willing to scrap this deal that would have devastating impact on our economy and the people, we will be compelled to take stern trade union action, said AoE. The government did not consult professional bodies, businessmen, academics or any other stakeholder. And our negotiators are hopeless.

 

Due to the agreement, Singaporean exporters can save USD 10 million they had previously paid as tax, but almost all the Sri Lankan goods, included in the schedules of the SLSFTA are items that almost all the countries export to Singapore tax free. “If there occurs any dispute, arbitration will be done in Singaporean arbitration centers. This is insane.”

 

The government has also opened up professions sans licence or qualification requirements to foreigners. In the agreement Sri Lanka has four vague sentences on licencing and qualification requirements for Singaporean citizens and PR holders while Singapore has one and a half pages of restrictions, pointing to specific clauses in the Singaporean laws. Further, there is a clause in the RTI which prevents information about foreign trade deals being disclosed, concluded AoE

 

Sri Lanka Institute of Architecture  held a press conference in May 2018. In 2015, the government indicated their intention to sign FTAs initially with India and subsequently with China, Singapore and other countries for the purpose of enhancing foreign direct investments, said the President, SLIA. Architect D.H. Wijewardene  the professional organizations along with other parties interested in national development then  sent a strong signal that these bilateral trade agreements have to be done with the consent of the people including professionals who had greater insights on the services sector,

 

In July 2016, assurances were given by the minister in writing that the legal framework will be in place prior to signing any FTA but action was extremely slow while negotiations on FTA proceeded independently. Actions being taken by the government on trade policy, renewed immigration laws, strengthening of professional institutions are still at the initial stages. And the establishment of a human capital authority to figure out human resources requirements. Which is a prime requirement has not seen light of the day”,  he continued.

 

At the few discussions that took place between the Ministry of Development Strategies and International Trade and professional bodies, it was insisted that until and unless the domestic mechanisms were in place and professional organizations were strengthened to prevent the influx of low quality foreign professionals, liberalization of the services sector should not be implemented. The professionals also insisted that a National Trade Policy must be published with input from the stakeholders and specific cases must be presented for bilateral trade agreements showcasing how they would benefit the country and its people. This has not happened so far” continued  President, SLIA.

Shattering all the expectations, on January 23rd this year, the government signed the Sri Lanka Singapore FTA, the first FTA which is liberalizing key services sectors. SLSFTA has come into force on 1st of May 2018 after an exchange of letters between the two parties confirming that the necessary apparatuses are in place on both sides”,  he said

On April 7, when the country was preparing for the New Year holidays, the ministry posted the agreement on its web page, then it became lawfully valid by May 1, 2018 only to take us by surprise as to why these were done in such a hasty manner. ere is no alternative for us now other than to call the agreement to be brought to Parliament, debated and put to a vote” he continued.

“All professional organizations condemn this non-transparent procedure followed and consider it as a great insult to the professionals and the people of this country. Therefore, we who represent professionals’ institutions of Sri Lanka, insist that SLSFTA be brought to the Parliament for approval, fast track the changes that were agreed upon for sustainable development while safeguarding the national interests and hold back all other FTAs until these prime requirements are fulfilled”, SLIA president said.

“The Schedules of Commitments in SLSFTA, which are of prime importance to the people of the country and professionals in particular, when the services trade is liberalized, was never discussed with the professional bodies, and now we find that there are many major concerns for the local professionals, in the way that our commitments are written, he added.

This is where input from the professional organizations could have been included in the agreement making it beneficial to the professionals who have been educated and trained using public money” As a result of SLSFTA, there will soon be an influx of low quality foreign professionals into the country grabbing the job opportunities that belong to qualified and experienced local professionals,” he said.

Submissions made to the government by professionals in the construction industry to not include or implement liberalization of the services sector through the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (SLSFTA) fell on deaf ears and the country will have to pay the price , concluded  Architect D.H. Wijewardene,

The professionals were also called to speak at a National Joint Committee meeting in April 2018.. Dr. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan of the University of Colombo said. “The SLSFTA, drafted and signed without any public consultations, is the brainchild of a number of well connected individuals, including those holding foreign citizenship, who have no concern for Sri Lanka.

If the Sri Lankan Parliament ratifies the SLSFTA it will become a binding agreement/law that no future government will be able to change and it which will become more powerful than a constitution. And this particular agreement has no termination clauses.

Senior lawyer Kanishka Witharana said: “This agreement is the first of its kind, covering goods and services, and it will have a devastating impact on the country because the government has opened up professions sans licence or qualification requirements to foreigners. ” Sri Lanka must put in place a comprehensive domestic regulatory framework before entering into international agreements.”. We are not against trade deals but we need robust domestic laws to safeguard the national interest.” .

According to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), , a country must formulate its licencing and qualification requirements and technical standards prior to entering into agreements with other member nations. After entering into an agreement a state cannot come up with regulations in violation of trade agreements already in place. On the other hand, Singapore has one of the most comprehensive legal systems in the world.”

WTO says a member shall provide for adequate procedures to verify the competence of professionals of any other member  if we try to change regulations halfway we may have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars as compensation. . India has its laws, such as Architects act of 1972 and the Council of Architects and no foreigner can practice there. However, apart from four professions, i.e. doctors, accountants, surveyors and lawyers in court, there is no regulation in Sri Lanka  as regards other professions, the speakers said.

The professions have also formed combinations for the purpose of challenging the FTAs. Of these combinations, the one which has received the most attention is ‘Viyath Maga’. ‘Viyath Maga’ was started in 2016 by Gotabhaya Rajapakse, as a network of academics, professionals, and entrepreneurs who wish to contribute towards the development of Sri Lanka. It would act as a pressure group and would engage in district wise campaigns .

The first annual convention of ‘Viyath Maga’   held in March 2017, was a ‘grand affair,’ reported Chandraprema. The audience consisted predominantly of young professionals, academics, and businessmen, both male and female.  The attendance records  showed that there were 185 doctors, 103 lawyers, 47 engineers, and 46 accountants and 57 university academics, not to mention the other categories such corporate executives, artists, marketers, IT professionals, architects, journalists, hoteliers, businessmen, school teachers and principals  who attended in large numbers.

The enormous ballroom was packed wall to wall with row upon row of chairs and it was filled to capacity with standing room only. The corridors and walkways were also full, approximating an audience of about 2,000,  added another commentator. The excitement amongst the crowd was electrifying and the deliveries of the speakers were excellent. The key message of the Viyath Maga Convention was that the professionals of this country should play a more active role in planning and implementing the national policies. This was highlighted by speaker after speaker, concluded Chandraprema. Viyath Maga held several meetings thereafter. One was held by the Viyath Maga Gampaha branch at Wet Water Resort on Ja-ela-Gampaha road, in October 2017.

The next AGM in May 2018 was equally impressive, said Chandraprema. Long lines of vehicles, two abreast, were seen on both sides of the road, waiting to enter the driveway to the Shangri- La hotel. Inside the rugby field sized ballroom was probably the largest gathering of professionals ever seen in this country in one place. The meeting was also attended by the cream de la cream of the private sector including the top business magnates.

The first to speak was Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. He spoke not a word about his previous subjects, national defence and urban development, but solely on economics, spelling out a vision for Sri Lanka for the year 2030 with economic growth being the primary focus. The focus of the entire proceedings was on economic development. If the private sector was looking for a way out of the morass the country finds itself in today, the Viyath Maga AGM seminar 2018 seemed to show the way. What they heard from all the speakers, would have been music to their ears, concluded Chandraprema.

The Professionals National Front” was created in 2017 by a consortium of professional associations in order to influence the FTAs that Yahapalana was planning to sign with India and Singapore.

 

The Professionals’ National Front   included Government Medical Officers’ Association   Electrical Engineers’ Association,  Customs Officers’ Union, National University Teachers’ Association, Inland Revenue Trade Unions Joint Committee, Society of IT Professionals, Progressive Bank Employees Front, Government Ayurveda Medical Officers Association, Telecommunication Engineers Union, Public Service United Nurses Union, Government Dental Surgeons Association, Customs Officers Union, CPC Engineers Union, National University Teachers Association and the Railway Professionals Trade Unions’ Alliance.

 

This is an unbelievably long list but it is  correct. In March 2018, the media confirmed that PNF comprises a collective of trade unions representing doctors, bankers, university teachers, Inland Revenue officers, Ayurvedic medical officers, railway professionals, engineers, and IT professionals.

 

In 2017 Professionals’ National Front wrote to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, raising a series of contentious issues including the Trincomalee oil tank farm and a bridge to link the two countries. In March 2018, PNF said that it would file action against those involved in negotiations on bilateral trade agreements.

In February 2017 the Professionals’ National Front set up a People’s Commission to formulate a Policy framework for International Trade and Treaties. The Commission consisted of Prof W.D.  Lakshman, and Palitha Fernando PC (co-chairmen) P. D. Fernando, R. P. L. Weerasinghe, Dr Bandula Weerasekera, Dr Anula Wijesundera and Lakshman Perera. The Commission was created after the PNF had    numerous discussions with the government about ETCA. PMF saw that government needed to be guided by a set of criteria when entering into trade treaties.   A policy framework was needed. Therefore PNF set up this Commission.

The auditorium was packed to capacity with standing room only at the inauguration of this Commission. Chandraprema provided an extensive report of the occasion. Prof W. D. Lakshman said foreign remittances from Sri Lankans employed abroad was what enabled us to meet our foreign exchange needs but  if, with  the Indian employees coming into Sri Lanka under ETCA and the opening up of the services sector,  Indians were allowed to remit money from Sri Lanka, that would deplete Sri Lanka’s biggest source of foreign exchange.

Dr Bellanwila Wimalaratana said that people were being bamboozled with fairytales. He stated that treaties were being entered into without a proper study of their implications. He said that he was not opposed to trade treaties with other countries if they were of benefit to this country. For example, the Rubber-Rice Pact with China was a good treaty which benefitted Sri Lanka for many years.

Ven.  Wimalaratana drew attention to Sri Lanka fears of   Indian expansionism, ETCA was another example of Indian expansionism, he said, and people should talk about these things. He stated that the Yahapalana leaders had no right to say that they would go ahead with a trade treaty no matter who opposed it.

Ven. Wimalaratana said that the professionals had embarked on an important endeavor and he likened the National Commission to formulate a National policy on Trade and international Treaties to the Buddhist Commission in the 1950’s headed by Professor Malalasekera. He observed that the recommendations made by that Commission had a major impact on the 1956 General Election.

Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya, President GMOA observed that the existing India- Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement had not benefitted Sri Lanka, on the contrary Sri Lanka had suffered losses as a result of it. He drew attention to the booklet published by the GMOA on the FTA with India. among other things, the booklet pointed out that though arecanut was the main export from Sri Lanka to India even this had not resulted in a development of arecanut cultivation in Sri Lanka because arecanut is imported from Indonesia to be re-exported.

Dr. Padeniya also observed that some economic advisors in Sri Lanka retained their positions despite changes of government and that something akin to match fixing was going on with regard to negotiating the trade deal between India and Sri Lanka. Even the people who were supposed to represent us were actually representing the other side said Padeniya. Prime Minister has said that ETCA would be signed in June despite all opposition to it, and that under such circumstances professionals cannot stand by idly and do nothing, he said.

Entrepreneur Samantha Kumarasinghe of Nature’s Secrets observed that even the Central Bank Governor was saying that our country is in a debt crisis and that assets have to be sold to get out of this trap. The debt to GDP ratio in Japan was over 250% but that nobody was talking in terms of selling off Japanese state assets to foreigners.

Kumarasinghe  said that an agreement was entered into in the 1980s with a Singaporean Company to mill wheat imported into Sri Lanka for 30 years on a ‘build operate and transfer’ basis but that in 2001, the then President sold the business that was to come into the hands of the government in 2007, for 60 million USD. The turnover of that enterprise since then had been well in excess of eight billion USD. He is referring to Prima Ceylon.

Kumarasinghe said that likewise fuel distribution rights were given to an Indian company for 75 million USD simply to import fuel and to distribute it without even refining it in Sri Lanka.  He is referring to Lanka IOC. He said that people are being hauled to courts for misusing vehicles, but there is not even a discussion about the abuses that took place in selling assets to foreigners.

This was possible due to the lack of a national policy on trade and investment. The point that Kumarasinghe made, said Chandraprema, was that in the absence of a policy framework, leaders and governments could make arbitrary decisions with regard to national assets.

The People’s Commission to formulate a Policy framework for International Trade and Treaties” issued a public announcement in March 2017. People’s Commission   inquiring into key elements of the National Trade Policy was holding public sittings from April 6 onwards for Sri Lankans to make submissions on, (a) Ensuring competitiveness of local entrepreneurs (April 6); (b) Securing of local professional and tech careers (April 20); (c) Accommodating national interest when entering into international trade agreements (April 27); (d) Responsibility and accountability for trade agreements and analysis of their impact (May 5); (e) Sri Lanka’s commitments and undertakings for the World Trade Organization (May 18); and (f) Evaluation of social, cultural and sustainable development impacts of trade agreements (May 25) March 2017.

The sittings are being held at the Organization of Professional Association (OPA) auditorium at Prof. Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha, Colombo 7. The commission is headed by Prof. W.D. Lakshman, a renowned economist and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo while K. Thilakaratna is the Commission secretary.

Susil Premajayantha was an enthusiastic participant at the second session of the oral submissions reported the media. He was asked why the government is not taking the views of professionals into account with regard to ETCA. His e reply was that the government was not consulting even cabinet ministers about it let alone professionals.

In  May 2018 A group of seven professional bodies  calling themselves United Professional Movement (UPM), held a press conference to raise concerns about the  Singapore FTA, urging that it be presented to Parliament immediately. The group represented the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL), Sri Lanka Institute of Architects (SLIA), Institution of Incorporated Engineers Sri Lanka (IIESL), Institute of Quantity Surveyors Sri Lanka (IQSSL), Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka (ITPSL), Institute of Landscape Architects and Institution of Surveyors (ILAIS).

Upul Shantha,  President of Institute of Quantity Surveyors Sri Lanka, Plnr. Piyal Silva President of Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka, President of Sri Lanka Institute of Landscape Architects D Hettiarachchi and President of Institute of Incorporated Engineers Sri Lanka Eng. Kithsiri Kottage were also present at the event. Plnr. Piyal Silva President of Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka, Ch. Qs Upul Shantha President of Institute of Quantity Surveyors Sri Lanka, The president of the SLIA Archt. D.H. Wijewardene, President of Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka Eng. Prof. Niranjanie Ratnayake, President of Institute of Incorporated .UPM Engineers Sri Lanka Eng Kithsiri Kottage and President of Sri Lanka Institute of Landscape Architects D Hettiarachchi were present at the event.

In January 2018, UPM had submitted a comprehensive proposal on National Policy Framework and National Registration Process identifying the major legal shortcomings in the Sri Lankan legal systems in terms of liberalization. The proposal included   suggestion for new legislation and also amendments to the existing Acts.

In May 14. 2018 UPM held a press conference held in Colombo   where is declared vehemently that the already signed SLSFTA has serious negative consequences to the livelihood of people of Sri Lanka and to the territorial integrity. It is essential that the agreement be ratified in parliament with a 2/3 majority as per the constitutional requirements,

Although a written public commitment was given to establish a Joint Working Committee (JWC) encompassing all stakeholders before end July 2016 with the approval of Cabinet subcommittee that was not done to date, said UPM. Since our legal and regulatory frameworks are outdated we insisted  that the government bring in relevant legal enactments. This is still pending”.

UPM had  asked that  two studies be made available to them, the National Interest Analysis report – outlining the advantages and disadvantages of the agreement including foreseeable economic and/or environmental effects  and the Regulatory Impact assessment – outlining the assessment of the impact of proposed agreement on stakeholder groups and community. UPM have not  been given these reports.

The UPM therefore condemns the grossly undemocratic procedure followed for the FTA and consider it as a great insult to the professionals and the people of this country. UPM expressed its stand as follows

“With regard to the signed SLSFTA, affected stakeholder groups should have access to National Interest Analysis report and Regulatory Impact Assessment report for their perusal with immediate effect. Hold all other bi-lateral agreement negotiations until such time following are satisfied. a. Establish a JWC with stakeholder participation. b. Ensure expeditious enactment of relevant legal and regulatory frame works”.

UPM  explained further. At the few discussions that took place between the Ministry of Development Strategies and International Trade ( MoDSIT) and the professional groups, it was insisted that until and unless the domestic mechanisms are in place and the professional organizations are strengthened to face the challenges of ensuring prevention of low quality foreign professionals practicing here and taking up the jobs that should be filled by local professionals, and ensuring that new employment opportunities are created for the local professionals, FTAs liberalizing service sector should not be implemented.

The Professionals also insisted that a National Trade Policy must be published with input from the stakeholders and specific cases must be presented for bilateral trade agreements showcasing how they would benefit the country and its people.

in July 2016, assurances were given by the Minister in writing that the legal framework will be in place prior to signing any FTA but actions have been extremely slow while negotiations on FTAs has proceeded independently.

The few actions taken by the Government to have a trade policy, streamline the immigration laws, strengthen professional institutions etc. has been a very slow process and they are all at the initial stages. Establishment of a human capital authority to figure out human resources requirements which is a prime requirement did not see the light of the day.

The President of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects (SLIA) Archt. D.H. Wijewardene said the professional bodies were not against the  FTA with Singapore , yet the manner in which the agreement has been formulated was of great concern. It is important that respective professional bodies should be consulted prior to entering such agreement. He also noted that, while Singapore is  well prepared for such agreements, Sri Lanka is not.

Wijewardene  said a 42-page document was submitted to the government by the professional bodies in Sri Lanka to consider before the agreement was signed. But nothing happened thereafter. No attempt was made to discuss the document with the professionals. Many areas in the FTA on professionals and investments coming into Sri Lanka remained open creating space for regulations potentially damaging the Sri Lankan economy,” he added.

.Sri Lanka doesn’t have proper employment based visa regulations. There are many foreigners who have come to Sri Lanka on business visas and have remained for long. There is no tracking mechanism for that, stated IESL Vice President Arjuna Manamperi.

The President of Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka Engineer Prof. Niranjanie Ratnayake said many letters were sent by the professional bodies to the government but the government ignored the letters, There are several technical aspects to be considered in this agreement which the WTO and Singapore are aware of, but these aspects have not been considered by Sri Lanka .

Singapore has gone into each and every detail of restrictions before signing the FTA. Sri Lanka has not done that. When opportunities for Singaporeans are created  in Sri Lanka, graduates here will not have many opportunities. There will be tough competition between the Sri Lankans and Singaporeans for jobs.

The FTA states that Singaporean Permanent Resident (PR) holders can also come into Sri Lanka which in turn will allow citizens from other countries holding Singaporean PR to come and work here. There are no clear regulations stated in the agreement for  the level of qualification and the period of stay in Sri Lanka,” noted Ms. Ratnayake. ( continued)

 

 

One Response to “YAHAPALANA AS A “WAKE UP CALL” Part 2”

  1. Christie Says:

    The Singapore Agreement is in fact aa agreement with Indian Colonial Parasites of Sri Lanka and Indian Colonial Parasites of Singapore.

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