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Clashes erupt in Sri Lanka over pension plan, 23 hurt

[Reuters, Monday, 30 May 2011 15:36 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s trade unions on Monday threatened to shut down the Indian Ocean nation’s free trade zones after clashes between police and workers striking over a proposed private pension plan left at least 23 injured.

Police said they fired tear gas and live ammunition while scuffling with several thousand striking employees at the free trade zone near Sri Lanka’s only international airport, located about 33 km (20 miles) north of the commercial capital, Colombo.

In the first significant industrial action to face President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government since it won a 25-year civil war in 2009, a union linked to the Marxist opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party (JVP) has been on strike for three days.

Authorities said at least eight people were wounded by police including by gunfire after warning shots were ignored, and nine officers were injured after protesters threw rocks.

Union officials said 40 workers were hurt.

"When a large crowd stormed in, police fired in the air and then later fired at them to control the gathering," Inspector General of Police Mahinda Balasuriya told a press conference.

He estimated that 5,000 workers were involved, and said at least 500 stormed a police station and damaged vehicles.

The Intercompany Employees’ Union (ICEU) said at least 40 workers were wounded and many arrested after what it called a peaceful protest over a proposed pension scheme that has drawn fire from employers and employees alike.

"We won’t allow any production activities in all free trade zones islandwide from tomorrow if the government doesn’t release the arrested employees and conduct an impartial inquiry why the police fired live bullets at unarmed employees," ICEU president Wasantha Samarasinghe told reporters.

PENSION CONFUSION

The JVP and its affiliated unions, which have in the past been a significant political force, oppose the new pension plan on the grounds it would not guarantee retirement savings and benefits as is the case now.

Employers have complained too, saying it adds an additional cost to the existing employees provident and trust funds. The government has been faulted for failing to explain the plan clearly and delineate which workers it covers.

Underscoring the official confusion, local media quoted Labour Minister Gamini Lokuge as saying the free trade zone employees were exempt from the new pension proposal. Lokuge could not be immediately reached for comment.

The strike would involve about 120,000 employees in the 12 free trade zones across the Indian Ocean island nation, which has been trying to attract major foreign investment since the end of the war through the state-run Board of Investment (BOI).

The 265 companies in the BOI-run free trade zones account for about 13 percent of the annual $8 billion in exports.

[Full Coverage]

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