Trade Unions

Freedom to Join and Form a Union

The Constitution provides for Freedom of Association and allows workers to form and join Trade Unions.
The Trade Unions Ordinance defines trade union as any association or combination of workmen or employers, whether temporary or permanent, having among its objects one or more of the following objects :-
(a) the regulation of relations between workmen and employers, or between workmen and workmen or between employers and employers; or
(b) the imposing of restrictive conditions on the conduct of any trade or business ; or
(c) the representation of either workmen or employers in trade disputes ; or
(d) the promotion or organization of financing of strikes or lock-outs in any trade or industry or the provision of pay or other benefits for its members during a strike or lock-out and includes any federation of two or more trade unions.
A trade union must get registered within three months of commencement, however extension up to six months can be granted. The prescribed application form, signed by at least seven persons, is submitted to the registrar along with a copy of the rules of the trade union and a statement of the following particulars, namely:
the names, occupations and addresses of the members making the application; the name of the trade union and the address of its head office; and the titles, names, ages, addresses and occupations of the officers of the trade union.
If the objects, rules and constitution of the union do not conflict with any of such provisions, the Registrar issues the certificate of registration the union. The union can be prosecuted for non-compliance with the requirements.
The Industrial Disputes Act considers it an unfair labour practice if workers are coerced/forced by the employer to join or refrain from joining a union as a condition of employment. Similarly, an employer cannot discriminate against a worker in any aspect of employment due to the worker's participation in trade union activities. A person above the age of 21 but under the age of 16 years may become a union member. In Sri Lanka, there are 2,074 registered trade unions, of which 54.5 per cent are in the public sector, 27.5 per cent in public corporations and 18 per cent in the private sector. The number of members covered by the trade unions amount to 9.5 per cent of the total workforce of Sri Lanka. While several unions are affiliated to the Global Union Federations (GUFs), there are four unions that are affiliated to the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICTU). The ICTU members being: Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya (SLNSS), National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and the National Workers Congress (NWC). Below their reference:

1. Ceylon Workers Congress
Add: 72, Anada Coomaraswamy Mawatha, Colombo 07
TP: 94 011-2574528, 011-2574524

2. National Trade Union Federation
No. 60, Bandaranayakepura,
Sri Jayawardenapura Mawatha Welikada, Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka

Freedom of Collective Bargaining

Industrial Disputes Act provides for collective bargaining. However, the requirement that a union must represent at least 40% of workers at a given workplace seems quite restrictive.
Industrial Disputes Act defines collective agreement as an agreement relating to the terms and condition of employment of workmen in any industry. Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) usually provides better benefits to the worker than those provided in the law. If a CBA has provisions which are less favourable than those provided under the law, it cannot be enforced.
The CBA is effective on the date it gets published. It binds the parties, trade unions, employers and workmen referred in the agreement.
A CBA may be concluded for definite or indefinite time period. A CBA of indefinite term may be cancelled by giving a written cancellation notice in the prescribed form sent to the Commissioner and to every other party, trade union and employer.
A CBA must be in writing and signed by either the parties or their representatives.

Source: §5-10 & 32(A)(g) of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1950

Right to Strike

Sri Lankan law does not explicitly recognize the right to strike however since the Trade Union Ordinance defines what the strike action involves and also prohibits the strike in essential services (, it can be implicitly assumed that strike action in enterprises other than essential services is legal and allowed by law if an employer is informed at least 21 days prior to the commencement of the strike in a prescribed manner and form. Compulsory recourse to arbitration and long list of so-called essential services actually restrict the right to strike.
The Trade Unions Ordinance and the Industrial Dispute Act defines strike as the cessation of work by a body of persons employed in any trade or industry acting in combination, or a concerted refusal, or a refusal under a common understanding of any number of persons who are, or have been so employed, to continue to work or to accept employment.
Industrial Dispute is any dispute or difference between employers and workmen or between workmen and workmen connected with the employment or non-employment, or the terms of employment, or with the conditions of labour, of any person.

Source: §32, 48of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1950; §67 of the Factories Ordinance; §02 of the Trade Union Ordinance, 1935

Regulations on Trade Unions

  • 1950, කාර්මික ආරවුල් පනත / 1950 ஆம் ஆண்டு கைத்தொழில் பிணக்குகள் சட்டம் / Industrial Disputes Act, 1950
  • 2010 වර්ෂය දක්වා සංශෝධනය කරන ලද පරිදි 1978 ශ්‍රී ලංකා ආණ්ඩුක්‍රම ව්‍යවස්ථාව / 1978 இலங்கை யாப்பு 2010 வரை திருத்தப்பட்டுள்ளது / The Constitution of Sri Lanka 1978, amended up to 2015