Health workers have protested over shortages of medicines as well as their own pay and conditions (Picture: Government Medical Officers’ Association on Facebook)

Thousands of workers in Sri Lanka defied a government ban to strike on Wednesday in protest against a new austerity drive. Some 40 unions are taking action against spending cuts and tax rises the government says are necessary to stabilise the economy.

Strikes have shut banks, hospitals, universities and ports, and there are picket lines and protests across the island.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe is facing a wave of opposition to his attacks. Sales taxes are now set to hit 30 percent after the government increased them to 15 percent last year. The electricity board was last month instructed to raise prices by 66 percent, the second rise in six months.

Wickremesinghe’s new economic programme is at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sri Lanka’s economy was ruined by a debt crisis and economic mismanagement by those at the top of society. That came to a head when the state defaulted on its debts last April. But the IMF insists ordinary people must now pay the price for its offer to refinance the country.

As unions geared up for action, Wickremesinghe responded by using his executive powers to effectively outlaw strikes. He insisted workers in “essential services” be banned from walking out.

Some unions—including those that represent workers on the railways and in the post—obeyed the order under duress. Engineers working for the Ceylon Electricity Board rang in sick rather than strike. And, Joseph Stalin, the high profile leader of the teachers’ union, said his members would wear black armbands to work as a protest against the government.

But others, including dockers, took a far stronger line. Many hundreds of them joined a lunchtime rally in the port city of Colombo. “We have launched the strike from 7am today to 7am tomorrow. We won’t accept the essential services order,” said dockers’ leader Niroshan Gorakanage.

And, there are signs that today’s strike is only the first shot in a bigger battle.

Haritha Aluthge of the Government Medical Officers’ Association told reporters in Colombo, that his union planned to step up the fight. “A token one-day protest is not going to sway the authorities,” he said. “We will have to take stronger action.” 

The new strikes are the first major act of resistance to the government’s austerity plans. But few in Sri Lanka will forget the major uprising that gripped the country last summer. 

Then, huge strikes drove millions of workers onto the streets and forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the discredited president, to leave the country in a hurry. Protesters proceeded to break into his house, swim in his pool, and parade around his bedrooms while wearing his clothes.

Wickremesinghe has been treading a careful path since taking over the presidency, trying not to reignite the protests. He also played divide and rule by offering limited concessions to some that had joined the anti-Rajapaksa movement.

But the IMF is playing hardball. In order to refinance Sri Lanka’s £38 billion debt, they want stringent cuts—and for China to take a massive hit on money owed to it. With world bankers fearful that 14 other countries are now at risk of a debt default, the IMF wants to ensure it gets its pound of flesh.

That means the stakes are high. Workers in Sri Lanka are not just fighting for themselves and their families. Their struggle is for millions of others across the world who will soon be in a similar position.

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