05/31/2011, 00.00
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Police charge 18,000 workers, Catholics condemn the crackdown

by Melani Manel Perera
Clashes occurred on Monday when workers were protesting against a draft law that would not guarantee a lifetime retirement pension. Three people are said to have died in the incident. Police used tear gas and prevented wounded from being evacuated to hospitals.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – Catholic priests and human rights activists have firmly slammed the brutal police crackdown on thousands of Free Trade Zone workers who staged a protest yesterday in Katunayake. Protesters are against a proposed Private Sector Pension bill, which they deem deeply flawed because it does not guarantee workers a lifetime pension (see Melani Manel Perera, “Sri Lanka: pension guaranteed ‘until funds run out’,” in AsiaNews, 17 May 2011). “Independent protest is a right of every free citizen,” said Fr Reid Shelton Fernando, a Catholic priest. “What has happened shows that, in this country, people cannot exercise one of their fundamental rights.”

According to some witnesses, police stormed a number of factories looking for demonstrators. They also blocked the main entry point to the zone in order to stop people from leaving. After a few hours, workers were able to force the blockade, allowing some 18,000 people to pour into the streets where they clashed with police. Witnesses said police also tried to prevent the wounded from being taken to hospitals.

Fr Sarath Iddamalgod, a Catholic priest, was in a local temple with six Buddhist monks when the mayhem broke out. “We saw the police launch tear gas to stop the demonstrators.”

“The government is trying to crush peaceful protests,” Laxman Rosa, a Christian political activist, said. “This is a total violation of human rights, the right of freedom of expression and the right to defend workers’ rights.”

Unofficial sources have also reported three deaths. Freddy Gamage, who writes for the Meepura newspaper, said that 216 wounded people are in the Negombo hospital. One of them has a gunshot wound to the leg and is in the intensive care unit.

The proposed Private Sector Pension Bill law would set up three pension funds to provide workers with retirement benefits but only as long as the pension fund does not run out of money. In practice, this means workers will contribute a fixed percentage of their salary to fund their pension plan and will be entitled to benefits upon retirement. However, should the plan run out of money, they would receive nothing.

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