The Foundation successfully convenes conference on the theme “Re-Imagining Workers’ Rights in the Post-Pandemic Era” in cooperation with the Law & Society Trust in Colombo

On 10 December 2022, lawyers, trade union representatives and civil society members came together to reflect on the intersection between workers’ rights and women’s rights in Sri Lanka, with a focus on how women workers were affected by the pandemic and the post-pandemic economic crisis.

The Conference was organised by the Max Planck Foundation in cooperation with the Law & Society Trust, a Sri Lankan organisation that supports the implementation of the full range of human rights, including socio-economic rights, labour rights and the rights of women and marginalised communities.

The conference was opened by Dr Sakuntala Kadirgamar, Executive Director of the Law & Society Trust, highlighting the pressing need for a continuous dialogue between social partners, lawyers, employers, and government representatives centred around developing solutions that would improve the protection of worker’s rights, especially in the Free Trade Zones.

Mr Balasingham Skanthakumar, Senior Programme Officer in the ILO Country Office, has shared valuable insights regarding the evolution of labour laws in Sri Lanka, reflected on the definition of ‘worker’ as per the Industrial Disputes Act No. 43 of 1950 and highlighted how certain categories of workers fall outside the employment relationship and are left with weaker protection. Mr Skanthakumar also underlined the essential role effective labour union play in the protection of individual rights of the worker. This has been followed by an overview of comparative practices around regulating harassment in the workplace and the various legal tools that are applied in different jurisdictions. Foundation Research Fellows underscored the importance of ILO Violence and Harassment Convention No.190/2019 as a benchmark for future law-making and contrasted how other jurisdictions have used it to campaign for labour reform in this field, as well as examples of laws that aim at tackling harassment outside the criminal framework.

The conference continued with a panel discussion, where Ms Sepali Kottegoda, Director Programmes at the Women and Media Collective discussed with Ms Chamila Thushari from the Dabindu Women’s Organisation, Ms Sujeewa Nelummali from the Textile Garment Clothing Workers Union (TGCWU) and Ms Chandra Devanarayan, from the RED Organisation about the many challenges that women workers’ face and the need for a strengthened unionising movement that would enable the workers’ to be heard and enter into negotiations with the employers. Following the same topic, Ms Arulingam Swasthika, human rights lawyer, and president of the Commercial and Industrial Workers Union (CIWU) highlighted the benefits of labour laws in Sri Lanka and indicated some methods that can be employed to ensure better worker protection outside of court proceedings or exercising the right to strike, instead she exemplified how non litigious methods can be successful in certain instances.

The conference concluded with an open forum, where the participants addressed questions and raised their concerns in relation to the on-going economic crisis and how it may continue to affect worker safety and security in the upcoming future, they analysed the advantages and disadvantages of out of court settlement of disputes and agreed that an ongoing discourse of these matters is the first step forward and that in the future this discussion should extend to include employer and government representatives.

This conference concludes the Advancing Institutional Capacity in the Sri Lankan Justice System project.