Sri Lanka's 1 million government servants are up in arms against the country's 107 ministers and 118 Members of Parliament over the issue of iniquitous salary increases.
According to The Island daily, the Public Sector Salary Review Committee of the trade unions has decided to approach the International Labour Organisation (ILO) after the Supreme Court refused to entertain a Fundamental Rights petition challenging the pay hike of 110 per cent to 165 per cent for ministers and MPs, when government servants had been given only a 6 per cent to 15 per cent hike.
Given the exceptionally large size of the country's bureaucracy, its power in Sri Lankan politics, and the possibility of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) spearheading an agitation, President Mahinda Rajapaksa may have to face a major challenge.
The government servants' unions think that they have a case because of the dissenting note of the presiding judge, Shirani Thilakawardena.
In September 2006, Sri Lanka's ministers and MPs were given a huge pay hike. The pay was put on par with judges of the Supreme Court in the case of Ministers, and with judges of the High Courts in the case of MPs. And the increase was to be with retrospective effect.
Ministers and MPs now get handsome allowances including money to pay a personally chosen staff - 15 in the case of cabinet ministers, 9 in the case of other ministers and 4 in the case of MPs. In many cases, the personal staff are family members or close relations.
Each MP gets a vehicle, and fuel, tour and telephone allowances. He gets a license to import an SUV worth $35,000 duty free.
Those who had put in five years get a pension (a third of the basic pay). MPs who had served 10 years get 2/3 of the basic pay as pension. Their personal staff are also entitled to pension.
Though the pay and allowances of the MPs and ministers are not enough, the general perception in Sri Lankan society is that politicians do not need these since they mint money through corruption anyway.
It is not surprising that opposition to the hike is voiced by government servants. They are 1 million in a population of 19.5 million and are very powerful, though generally derided for inefficiency.
In 2003, the right wing United National Party (UNP) government introduced a Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) to reduce the bloated bureaucracy by 30 per cent.
Those opting for it were to be given one year's pay in a lump sum, and thereafter, they were to get full monthly pay till retirement at 55. Their pension was to be 85 per cent of the basic salary.
But this was never implemented for fear of alienating a powerful section of the population. Instead, President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised not to prune the bureaucracy.
He promised to fill 33,000 vacant posts, give jobs to thousands of unemployed graduates and pay them suitably irrespective of the jobs they were doing.
The Mahinda Chintana also promised every government employee the facility to import a vehicle duty free.