Trade Unions

Know more about Trade Unions at Get information on How Trade Unions can be helpful to employees in Sri Lanka.

What is the Trade Union law in Sri Lanka?

Under the Trade Union Ordinance of 1935, a “trade union” is defined as any association or combination of workmen or employers, whether temporary or permanent, having among its objects one or more of the following objects:-

  • the regulation of relations between workers and employers, or between workers and workers or between employers and employers; or
  • the imposing of restrictive conditions on the conduct of any trade or business; or
  • the representation of either workers or employers in trade disputes; or
  • the promotion or organization or 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 “worker” is defined as any person who has entered into or works under a contract with an employer in any capacity, whether the contract is express or implied, oral or in writing, and whether it is a contract of service or of apprenticeship, or a contract personally to execute any work or labour and includes any person ordinarily employed under any such contract, whether such person is or is not in employment at any particular time.

Who can join a Trade Union?

Any person under the age of twenty-one, but above the age of sixteen, may be a member of a registered trade union, (unless provision is made in the rules contrary to this) and will (subject to the rules of the trade union), enjoy all the rights of a member.

Are there any categories of workers who cannot form Trade Unions?

Any association or combination consisting of -

  • judicial officers;
  • members of the armed Forces;
  • police officers;
  • prison officers; or
  • members of any corps established under the Agricultural Corps Ordinance,

Will not be considered a Trade Union and nothing in the Trade Union Ordinance will apply to such association or combination.

What are the rules for registering a Trade Union?

  1. The name of the trade union and address
  2. The objectives of the trade union and the purpose for which its funds will be utilized and the conditions under which any member may become entitled to any benefit assured by the trade union and the fines and forfeitures to be imposed on any member.
  3. The manner of making, altering, amending, and rescinding rules.
  4. The appointment or election and removal of an executive and of trustees, secretaries, treasurers, and other officers, of the trade union.
  5. The custody and investment of the funds of the trade union, the designation of the officer or officers responsible and the annual or periodical audit of its accounts.
  6. The inspection of the books and names of members of the trade union by any person having an interest in the funds of the trade union.
  7. The manner of the dissolution of the trade union and the disposal of the funds available at the time of such dissolution.

What are the rules governing Trade Union?

  • Not less than one-half of the total number of the officers of every registered trade union shall be persons actually engaged or employed in an industry or occupation with which the trade union is connected.
  • The Labour Minister may, by special or general Order published in the Gazette, declare that the provisions of this section shall not apply to any registered trade union or class of registered trade unions specified in the Order.
  • Any registered trade union may, with the consent of not less than two-thirds of the total number of its members and subject to the provisions of Section 35 in the Trade Union Ordinance, change its name.
  • Any two or more registered trade unions may become amalgamated together as one trade union with or without dissolution or division of the funds of such trade unions or either or any of them: provided that the votes of at least one-half of the members of each or every such trade union entitled to vote are recorded, and that at least sixty per cent of the votes recorded are in favour of the proposal.
  • Notice must be given in writing to the Registrar of every change of name and of every amalgamation, signed, in the case of a change of name, by the secretary and by seven members of the trade union changing its name, and, in the case of an amalgamation, by the secretary and by seven members of each and every trade union which is a party thereto.
  • The rules of every registered trade union shall be prominently exhibited at the registered office and shall be furnished by the secretary to any person on demand. A copy of every new rule and of every alteration made in the rules of a registered trade union must be sent to the Registrar within seven days of the making of such rules or alteration and shall be registered by the Registrar on payment of the prescribed fee.
  • The rules of a trade union may be made in Sinhala or Tamil or English
  • Notice of all changes of officers or of the title of any officer shall be prominently exhibited in the registered office of every registered trade union, and shall, within seven days after the change, be sent to the Registrar by such trade union and the Registrar correct the register accordingly.
  • When a registered trade union is dissolved, notice of the dissolution signed by seven members and by the secretary of the trade union must be given to the Registrar within fourteen days of the dissolution.
  • The rules of a trade union shall provide for the appointment or election of trustees and for the filling of vacancies in the office of trustee so that, as far as may be, there will always be at least three trustees of the union. Any officer or member of a registered trade union may be appointed a trustee.

What is the definition of Unfair Labour Practices?

The Industrial Disputes (Amendment) Act, No. 56 of 1999 stipulates under the title Unfair Labour Practices that no employer shall:

(a) require a worker to join or refrain from joining, any trade union, or to withdraw from or to refrain from withdrawing from his/her membership of a trade union of which he/she is a member, as a condition of his/her employment ;
(b) dismiss a worker by reason only of his/her membership of a trade union or of his/her engaging in trade union activities;
(c) give any inducement or promise to a worker for the purpose of preventing him/her from becoming, or continuing to be, a member, office bearer or representative of a trade union;
(d) prevent a workman from: (i) forming a trade union ; or (ii) supporting a trade union by financial or other means ;
(e) interfere with the conduct of the activities of a trade union ;
(f) dismiss, or otherwise take disciplinary action against, any worker or office-bearer of a trade union:
(i) for any statement made by such worker or office-bearer in good faith before any tribunal or person in authority ; or
(ii) for any statement regarding acts or omissions of the employer relating to the terms and conditions of employment, of the members of such trade union made by such workman or office-bearer, during the pursuit of industrial action for the purpose of securing redress or amelioration of working conditions of the members ;
(g) refuse to bargain with a trade union which has in its membership not less than forty percent of the workers on whose behalf the trade union seeks to bargain.

The Commissioner of Labour or an officer authorized by him in that behalf may conduct a poll at any work place in order to ascertain whether at least forty per cent of the workers on whose behalf the trade union seeks to bargain with the employer, are members of that trade union.

How is Collective Bargaining achieved in Sri Lanka?

Collective Bargaining is facilitated by the Industrial Disputes Act No. 56 of 1999. The Industrial Disputes Act defines Collective Bargaining as bargaining between any employer or employers and workers, or trade unions of workers on terms and conditions of employment and other related matters. The Government intervenes in deadlock situations in Collective Bargaining to conciliate on issues in dispute.

Wage determination in Sri Lanka includes the process of collective bargaining as an important method especially in the banking sector, large trading companies and the plantation sector. The Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC) represents their employer members in these negotiations. The Collective Agreements reached between parties are legally enforceable after they are placed with the Commissioner of Labour and published in the Government Gazette.

For the process of collective bargaining a Collective Bargaining Agent from the union with a membership of 40% of the workforce is appointed and is then the principle negotiator in consultation with the other unions in the industry.

In the event of the terms of the collective agreement failing, due to the employer not honouring the conditions then conciliation through the Industrial Relations Department is initiated with a view to settle the dispute through a Memorandum of Settlement. If that too fails, then both parties can resort to voluntary arbitration to resolve the dispute. If the Trade Union initiates industrial action, then compulsory arbitration is implemented through the Industrial Court by the Commissioner of Labour. During this process disputes are arbitrated by a single or panel of arbitrators and the decision of the Industrial Court is binding on the parties. However a process for appeal on points of law lies to the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

 Women Participation in Trade Unions

What is the labour force in Sri Lanka and what percentage of it are women?

  • According to the Department of Census and Statistic’s Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey – Second Quarter 2012 the estimated economically active population on the island is approximately 8.3 million.
  • Of the economically active population 67 percent constitute males and 33 percent are females.
  • Out of the economically inactive population 29.5 percent are males while females constitute 70.5 percent,

Which sectors have the greater representation of women workers in Sri Lanka?

According to the Labour Force Survey out of three sectors i.e. Agriculture, Industry and Services:

  • of a total of 30.0 percent of workers in the agriculture sector 31.7 percent are women workers,
  • while of the total 26.8 percent workers in the industrial sector 27.3 percent are women and;
  • of the total of 43.2 percent in the service sector 41.1 percent are women workers.
  • The survey maintains that women form a greater part of the agriculture sector at 31.17 percent in contrast to male workers who are at 29.2 percent.

Which main economically active sectors have a greater work force of women?

  • The plantation sector
  • The garment sector  
  • The migrant worker sector

Why is it important for women to be active participants in trade unions, after all can’t men address the issues facing women in the work place?

  • They can, but they seldom fully grasp the special needs that female workers have in relation to their work situations.  
  • Women are better able to place gender issues on the agenda than men for obvious reasons.
  • Women face disadvantages in terms of access to labour markets, and generally are not able to choose the type of work they would prefer.

Is there a discrepancy in the labour sector with regard to the wages and types of work that women engage in?

  • Women are overrepresented in the agricultural sector;
  • Women are also often in a disadvantaged position in terms of their share of the vulnerable employment in total employment and;
  • Women sometimes do not receive the same remuneration as their male counterparts.

How can greater participation by women in trade unions contribute to reducing gender differentials in the work place?

  • Only through equitable participation can women and men can achieve decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.
  • The increased and equitable participation of women in the process of social dialogue is fundamental to promoting gender equality through tripartism.
  • There is wider recognition of gender issues in the collective bargaining process when women rather than men highlight them.

What is the position of Sri Lankan women migrant workers with regard to organizing themselves?

  • According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, 262,960 persons had migrated for work in 2011. Of which 127,090 (48.3 percent) were women and of that 41 percent had migrated for work as domestic workers.
  • Most women migrant workers are employed in the domestic sector and are working in Middle East countries. Laws in many of the Middle Eastern countries, prohibit the establishment of/ participation in trade unions.
  • This inability to be organized into trade unions increases the vulnerability of employment of migrant workers.
  • Some worker organizations in Sri Lanka do address the issues faced by migrant workers and actively advocate and lobby for their rights.

Why are women under-represented in trade unions?

  • It is a challenge for worker organizations to mitigate the differences in union strength between sectors that mainly employ men and those that predominantly employ women.
  • Very often culturally and socially, men have dominated the world of work, and trade unions tend to have a higher percentage of men in their membership.
  • Some men also have stereotyped attitudes which mean that they prefer to vote for men rather than women to positions of office in the trade unions.
  • Since women play a multitude of roles as workers, mothers, wives and caregivers, their time after work is generally committed to their homes.
  • A lack of awareness of the benefits of organizing and belonging to a trade union may deter women from joining and running for office.
  • Some women are part-time workers and may not feel the need to join a trade union.
  • Since more women are employed in low paying jobs they may not be able to afford the union membership fees.
  • The lack of child care facilities within the organization creates an impediment to women wishing to stay after hours for union meetings/ activities.

What measures can trade unions take to ensure that women have more opportunities to participate in trade union activities and have equitable representation in the executive councils of the trade unions?

  • Special training programmes for women workers highlighting the benefits of organizing and belonging to trade unions, in order to secure their jobs, and rights as members of the labour force.
  • The provision of childcare facilities by the organization, providing an environment, whereby women who are mothers can exercise their right to decent work, organize and be active members and office bearers of trade unions.
  • Conduct trade union meetings during times that are convenient for women to attend.
  • Actively place gender issues faced by women on the agenda, and include them in collective bargaining agreements.
  • Encourage women workers to obtain membership in trade unions.
  • Establish a quota for women as office bearers in the trade union.

How can women’s groups and organizations help facilitate greater participation by women in trade unions?

  • Create wider awareness about issues affecting women in the world of work. Many people are unaware of these issues
  • Provide women with effective representation within a union, and encourage male union members to give parity of status to women in their executive councils
  • Facilitate an increase in the visibility of women in trade unions
  • Advocate for gender parity in all union activities
  • Advocate with employers organizations to provide child care facilities so that more women can actively participate in union meetings/ activities
  • Facilitate the mobilization and organization of women workers
  • Provide educational opportunities for women in the area of organizing and worker rights
  • Monitor gender parity in employer and worker organizations
  • Effectively use gender desegregated data to illustrate differences and discrimination


  • Dept. of Census and Statistics Sri Lanka
  • Economic and Social Statistics 2012 of Sri Lanka by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka
  • Women in Trade Unions by Homa Dean
  • Trade Union Ordinance 1935