Arjuna issues ultimatum to strikers: Report today or lose jobs

Arjuna Ranatunge

Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunge yesterday set an ultimatum to the employees who are carrying out a protest at the Hambantota port to report to work by 2.00 p.m today (Thursday) or be treated as having vacated their posts.

Speaking to the media yesterday in Colombo, Minister Ranatunge said that in the event of the posts being vacated, his ministry is prepared to recruit new employees to fill in the vacancies.

“We shall recruit employees to fill whatever the shortage that would occur if any worker decides not to turn up for work before 2.00 p.m on December 15. We can recruit people from the Hambantota area if any vacancies come up. Until we recruit new employees, we shall temporarily transfer workers from the Colombo port to Hambantota to ensure the smooth running of the port,” Minister Ranatunge stressed.

“Legal steps however shall be taken against the protesters who vandalized the port premises,” he added.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the damage that has been done by these protesters. It would be wrong do do so,” the minister said.

Minister Ranatunge pointed out that the government is not ready to go through heavy financial loses owing to a hidden political agenda behind the protest.

“We really do not know the exact damage that has been done in the last couple of days. We are yet to receive details of the financial loss that we had to suffer when the protesters took the port into their control. One ship that was to reach Hambantota was redirected to Colombo port. From tomorrow however, Hambantota port shall operate as usual,” the minister added.

“We have spoken with some shipping lines, and in these talks we got to know that they have named Hambantota port as a risk plus port from last evening. We have spoken with these shipping lines to let them know that we are taking over the Hambantota port and operations will return to normal and risk free. There is not a single ship at the Hambantota Port at the moment,” Minister Ranatunge further pointed out. He also pointed out that the involvement of the Foreign Ministry is important for damage control and convince internationally that the Hambantota port is no more a risk port.

“Hijacking the ships have cost us heavily in the international and maritime trade. We will have to pay a major penalty for this act. This is where we might have to get the involvement of the Foreign Ministry. However, the discussions up to now have gone quite smoothly. We have succeeded with some shipping lines but not with some. It is too early to name any shipping line to have abandoned us. We are trying to convince these shipping lines to keep faith in us. Our attempt is to present the hijacking as only a trade union action against the government and not piracy, Minister Ranatunge said.”

Minister Ranatunge further pointed out that they were yet to receive the calculations of the demurrage fee for delaying the ships at the port for more than four days. He revealed that the second ship that was held up by the protesters shall be leaving the port today.

The number one clause that we discussed when it comes to signing the agreement was to ensure the job security of these workers who were recruited by the previous regime to Magampura Management Company, Minister Ranatunge said.

“Our attempt is to get the best possible deal with the Chinese company when signing the agreement,”he added.

Explaining the nature of the agreement, the minister said that it is appropriate to say that the government is entering into an agreement similar to a MOU with the Chinese company regarding the port.

“It is wrong to define it as privatizing the Hambantota port,” he pointed out.

“We categorically want to take security responsibilities under SLPA control with the help of the Sri Lanka Navy. In the previous agreement it was totally given to the Chinese company. We are yet to reach a decision. The final agreement will be signed by January,” Minister Ranatunge said.

Responding to a question regarding the alleged assault of a journalist by the Navy Commander, Minister Ranatunge said that the media did not have the necessary security clearance to enter the port premises.

Meanwhile, a group of Hambabtota residents have joined the fray at the Hambantota port, where Sri Lanka Ports Authority workers are protesting.The residents say they are opposed to giving land to the Chinese. Sri Lanka is in negotiations to enter into a public-private partnership (PPP) with a Chinese company to ease accumulated debt, from the previous government. Workers at the Hambantota port are currently in their eighth day of satyagraha against the government’s decision.

They say they will lose their jobs to the Chinese if the government goes ahead with the planned PPP. In the event the government does go ahead with the proposed PPP, the port workers ask that they be absorbed into the permanent cadre to ensure their jobs.

The $ 1 billion debt-for- equity swap will see China set up a LNG Power plant, a refinery, a cement factory and dockyard, at a total investment of approximately USD 8 billion on an initial 15 sq km of land.

(Source: Daily News – By Amali Mallawaarachchi)