Trade unions in Sri Lanka under globalisation: reinventing worker solidarity

Janaka Biyanwila

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This study examines trade union resistance to the post 1977 Export Oriented Industrialisation (EOI) strategies in Sri Lanka, and the possibilities of developing new strategic options. In contrast to perspectives that narrow unions to political economic dimensions, this study emphasises the cultural and the movement dimensions of unions. The purpose of the study is to understand the ways unions can regain their role as civil society actors on the basis of building worker solidarity. The study is divided into two main parts. The first part focuses on the features and tendencies of social movement unionism as advancing new possibilities towards revitalising unions. Under globalisation, unions are faced with an increasingly casualised labour force with more women absorbed as wage workers. The promotion of labour market deregulation and privatisation, endorsed by neo-liberal ideologies of competitive individualism, illustrates the narrowing of unions to the workplace while undermining worker solidarity. The first part of this research describes the impact of :neo-liberal globalisation on trade unions; conceptualisation of and resistance to globalisation; the essence of trade unions; social movement unionism and labour internationalism. According to social movement unionism perspectives, party independent union strategies, based on elements of internal democracy and structured alliances open the possibility of emphasising the movement dimension of unions. The second part explains the context of unions in Sri Lanka, focusing on three unions - the Nurses, Tea Plantation workers, and Free Trade Zone workers. In terms of the structural context, Sri Lankan unions faced a multi-faceted weakening under the post-1977 EOI policies. The assertion of an authoritarian state, promoting interests of capital, enhanced the fragmentation of unions along party differences that were further compounded by divisions along ethnic identity politics. Moreover, the increasing militarisation of the state, which maintains a protracted ethnic war, reinforced coercive state strategies restraining union resistance and shrinking the realm of civil society. In confronting state strategies of labour market deregulation and privatisation, the enduring party subordinated unions are increasingly inadequate. In contrast, the three unions in this study express forms of party-independent union strategies. By analysing their modes of resistance related to the articulation of worker interests, their organisational modes, and their engagement in representative and movement politics the study explores the possibility of developing a social movement unionism orientation in order to regain their role as civil society actors
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2003


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