By Dharisha Bastians
Dock workers at the Hambantota Port ended a nine-day strike yesterday, shortly before a deadline issued by the Government for employees of the port management company to return to work elapsed but Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe assured that steps would be taken to increase security at the facility ahead of its lease to a Chinese company.
Some 400 workers attached to the Magampura Port Management Company which manages operations at the southern deep sea port would return to work by 2.00 p.m., President of the workers’ committee, I.K. Omesh, said following deliberations with his members last morning.
Ports Minister Arjuna Ranatunga issued an ultimatum to protesting workers on Wednesday (14), saying the employees would be considered to have vacated their posts if they did not report for duty by 2.00 p.m. yesterday.
Omesh said the decision to end the strike was made following discussions with the Minister who provided assurances that the jobs would be safe, despite Government plans to sign a joint venture with a Chinese firm to hand over management of the loss-making Hambantota Port.
Workers launched protests fearing job losses under the agreement with the Chinese company and strongly opposed what they called the “privatisation” of the port. The Sri Lanka Navy this week took over routine operations at the Hambantota Port in light of the ongoing strike by dock workers, a spokesman said.
The strike at the Hambantota Port took a potentially dangerous turn after protestors seized a Japanese-owned commercial vessel and prevented it from leaving the harbour for four days. Local shipping agents announced plans to divert other vehicle carriers to the Colombo Port in view of the strike, while the Government claimed that ship insurers had deemed the Hambantota Port “high risk” since the seizure of an international vessel.
Addressing the media at Temple Trees yesterday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed that the principals for the international commercial ship – K Line Shipping in Japan – was now demanding $ 400,000 from the Government for losses incurred during the ship’s seizure last week.
Wickremesinghe said the strike had been launched despite assurances obtained by the Government from the Chinese firm that will soon takeover operations of the port – China Merchants Port Holdings – that they will retain workers attached to the Magampura Port Management Company, a limited liability company set up by the Government to run the port in 2012.
According to the Prime Minister, what the workers really wanted was permanent employment at the state-owned Sri Lanka Ports Authority, which was already incurring heavy losses because of the Hambantota Port, which has failed to return profits in nearly six years of operation.
The Prime Minister also said that the Government had also instructed the Sri Lanka Navy to set up a camp near the Hambantota Port. “The Chinese firm has requested a permanent naval camp near the Hambantota Port when they take over management of the harbour,” Premier Wickremesinghe told reporters.
The presence of the navy would be important because a dockyard, a LNG power plant and an oil refinery will be set up at the port in due course, the Prime Minister explained. He said the Government had also instructed the Sri Lanka Air Force to set up a camp near the Mattala Airport.
Navy Chief hands over report on Hambantota Port operation to PM
Navy Chief Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijeguneratne, who is under a cloud for assaulting a journalist at the Hambantota Port last Sunday, received an audience with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at Temple Trees yesterday to hand over a report on the operation to “free” an international vessel seized by striking workers.
Vice Admiral Wijeguneratne met the Premier last afternoon, even as a crowd of provincial correspondents and media activists staged demonstrations against his conduct in Colombo Fort yesterday, demanding action against the top official.
Wickremesinghe thanked the Vice Admiral for successfully completing the operation to “rescue” the commercial vessels at the Hambantota Port last weekend.
The Prime Minister said that the forcible detention of international commercial vessels could have a serious impact on maritime commerce at the Hambantota Port which was already struggling to attract ships. He added that following consultations with President Maithripala Sirisena and the Defence Secretary, the decision had been made to request the Sri Lanka Navy to secure the port.
The Prime Minister also made reference to the journalist Roshan Gunasekera, who was assaulted and abused in foul language by the Navy Commander in full view of cameras, saying the Government had received complaints that the television reporter had entered the Hambantota Port without permission. “The port is a high security zone and there were security activities underway there at the time. We are investigating the complaint that the journalist entered without being granted permission,” the Prime Minister said.
The Prime Minister did not comment on the investigation the Defence Ministry has purportedly launched into the conduct of Navy Chief at the Hambantota Port last weekend, or denounce the attack on the journalist despite video footage of the incident being widely available.
“The journalist has made a complaint with the Tangalle police. Tangalle has only a fisheries harbour. I would request media organisations to lodge their complaints at the correct police station,” Wickremesinghe said.
Meanwhile at a discussion held yesterday on the attack on the journalist at the Hambantota Port at the Department of Government Information, Director General of the Department Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya expressed regret over his statement over the weekend.
Dr. Kalansooriya was criticised for appearing to blame the journalist for the attack, with a claim that he had not adhered to basic professional ethics in covering a volatile situation.