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By Saliya Weerakoon

In the heart of Colombo, where the sky meets the turquoise Indian Ocean, a new jewel has emerged on the skyline – ITC Ratnadipa. Its inauguration was not merely an opening of another luxury hotel; it was a declaration; a statement of elegance and ambition that resonates with Sri Lanka’s heritage as the ‘Island of Gems’.

The launch was attended by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took a nostalgic journey back to the era when Sri Lanka first welcomed the grandeur of five-star hospitality with the iconic Galle Face Hotel. I stepped into the ITC Ratnadipa and it was an architectural marvel with well-trained staff and luxury personified, well-equipped luxury rooms in coexistence with technology. 

Colombo, arguably one of the best cities in South Asia, has a lot to offer, but is certainly under-optimised. The emergence of ITC Ratnadipa and Shangri-La in Colombo, in addition to the other vintage properties, could undoubtedly lift the status quo for high-end tourism in Sri Lanka. 

This event is a reminder of the potent alchemy between heritage and modernity that defines Sri Lanka today. It comes at a time when another local giant, John Keells, is set to transform the cityscape further with its upcoming ‘City of Dreams’. This mixed-development property promises to weave another layer of sophistication into the fabric of Colombo. What does this tell us? It tells us about the unyielding spirit of enterprise that drives the nation.

Ratnadipa and City of Dreams are two brands that are different, but they provide a grand narrative. Colombo was always a city of dreams. Colombo was the city to achieve the Sri Lankan dream. 

Some critics took their fingers to social media and for them Ratnadipa was a bad brand and City of Dreams was bad in architecture. For me, Ratnadipa takes me back to the history of Sri Lanka and an 81-year-old Trinitian, a proud son of Sri Lanka, wove his magic to build City of Dreams. The man behind City of Dreams was Cecil Balmond – a global authority in architecture. In a world where everyone is an expert on someone else’s profession, critics are part of the deal. 

Meanwhile, Dilmah, a homegrown global brand synonymous with Ceylon Tea, is branching out into the world of spices with Ceylon Cinnamon. This move is not just about expanding a product line – it’s about redefining identity and stretching the boundaries of what is possible from this fertile island. 

But why does this matter to you and me? Because these stories are not isolated chapters. They are interconnected tales of resilience, ambition, and foresight that inspire a nation battered by economic storms. Each venture is a bonfire of hope, illuminating paths not only within the shores of Sri Lanka but also extending towards its vast diaspora. From every corner of the globe, Sri Lankans have excelled, reinforcing that the spirit of entrepreneurship is a universal passport to success.

So, as the scents of cinnamon mingle with the salty air and the skyline dazzles with new silhouettes, we must ask ourselves: what drives this relentless pursuit of innovation? Is it merely the desire to survive, or the burning passion to thrive, to carve out a destiny that honours the past while forging a future?

May Day developments

Consider this: while grand hotels rose and tea empires expanded, the country was also a stage for the theatrics of May Day. Political rallies pulled vast crowds, each a show of strength and a narrative of commitment. 

President Wickremesinghe reiterated his stability mantra, reminding citizens of his inherited storm and the calm he promised to restore. Meanwhile, aspirants like Sajith Premadasa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, and Dilith Jayaweera painted visions of victory and change, each pledging to lead the island nation to a brighter dawn.

May Day rallies are often used to showcase political might and this year it was amplified by all parties. Some politicians from key parties declared that their respective rallies had more than 100,000 people in attendance. Nothing wrong; some humans struggle with zeros. Most of the political speeches were about how great they are, rather than their political enemies. The day of the workers should belong to the workers, not their masters. 

Yet, beyond the spectacle, a crucial development unfolded: the President increased the daily wages of estate workers to Rs. 1,700 ($ 5.5) per day, a long-overdue acknowledgement of their toil. This decision, while a victory, poses new challenges for the plantation companies, balancing increased operational costs against fair compensation. Here lies a critical lesson in economics and empathy; a balancing act every aspiring leader and entrepreneur must master.

As the streets of Colombo burst into a kaleidoscope of colours and chants during the May Day celebrations, my mind travelled back to a pivotal chapter in my life. A moment etched in the annals of Sri Lanka’s labour history that echoes the undying spirit of its workforce. It was the late ’90s, a time of economic flux and fervent hopes, when I, as a young union branch leader of the Ceylon Bank Employees’ Union, found myself thrust into the throes of a protest that would mark both a personal and collective transformation.

Dressed in jeans and rubber slippers, armed with nothing but placards and our convictions, we took to the streets. Our battle wasn’t just about numbers on a paycheck; it was a fight for respect, for dignity in our labour. The city’s cacophony faded into the background as our voices rose in unison, a formidable force against an unbending management. The days stretched into months, each one a testament to our resolve.

Yet, the resolution of this conflict was bittersweet. While we secured a salary increment, it was a compromised victory, shadowed by the stark realisation of betrayal from within our ranks. Some of our comrades, those who once stood shoulder to shoulder with us, had traded their loyalty for personal gain, leaving behind a tainted legacy of the struggle.

This experience, though disheartening, was illuminating. It marked the last time I would participate in a trade union protest, not just because I never again worked where unions held sway, but because the sting of that betrayal lingered, a stark reminder of the complexities of human intentions and collective action.

Most of the senior bankers in Sri Lanka today were part of the late ’90s trade union action. They were mauled by the experience.

Trade unions and political games

As I reflect on those tumultuous days, I draw parallels with the present, where once again, the streets of Colombo are alive with the energy of May Day rallies. Political leaders and hopeful aspirants stand on their platforms, claiming solidarity with the working masses. They promise stability, reform, and prosperity. But beyond the pomp and spectacle, one wonders about the genuine commitment to the rights and well-being of the workers.

These events, both past and present, serve as a stark reminder of the enduring struggles of Sri Lanka’s workforce. They compel us to question: How much of the political rhetoric will translate into tangible benefits for the workers? Are these rallies a true celebration of labour rights, or merely a show of strength by political entities?

In the complex mural of Sri Lanka’s economic landscape, where each thread intertwines with layers of cultural, social, and political influences, the role of trade unions is becoming increasingly pivotal. Yet, this crucial institution, designed as a bastion for the rights and voices of workers, finds itself at a crossroads, caught between traditional roles of advocacy and the urgent need for evolution.

Imagine a bustling factory at the edge of Colombo, where workers, diligent and weary, weave through their daily routines under the relentless rhythm of machinery. Here, the trade union is not merely a representative body; it is a lifeline. But as the global market’s demands shift and the local economic pressures mount, these workers find their voices drowned out not just by the mechanical noise but by a cacophony of political agendas.

Trade unions in Sri Lanka, historically tied to various political factions, often find themselves embroiled in broader political games, sometimes at the expense of their own members’ immediate needs. This affiliation to political parties, while providing leverage in certain governmental negotiations, also divides and dilutes their focus, making it challenging to stay aligned with the workers’ real interests and the long-term sustainability of the organisations they help build.

However, envision a different scenario: a trade union that champions not just the cause of its members in isolation but advocates for the holistic growth of the entire organisation. Such a union would transform from a mere pressure group into a partner in progress, aligning workers’ aspirations with the strategic goals of the company.

Consider the story of a hypothetical apparel manufacturer in Galle, where a visionary trade union leader sees beyond the immediate skirmishes over wages and working conditions. She negotiates not just for fair pay but also for better training programmes, linking workforce development to increased productivity and higher quality outputs. Here, the trade union works hand in hand with management to tap into new markets, ensuring job security through company growth.

This collaborative approach could be revolutionary in Sri Lanka’s context, where economic challenges like high inflation and international competition are pressing. By fostering a union culture that prioritises organisational growth along with employee rights, both workers and companies can thrive, contributing to a more resilient economy.

As Sri Lanka navigates its recovery from economic setbacks, the need for such evolved trade unions becomes ever more apparent. These bodies must champion a dual cause: defending immediate worker rights while ensuring that their organisations adapt, innovate, and remain competitive on a global scale.

Shared prosperity and sustainability

For workers across this beautiful island, from the tea gardens of the central highlands to the tech offices in urban Colombo, the call is clear. They need unions that are not only shields against exploitation but also engines of shared prosperity. This reimagined role of trade unions could well be the linchpin in Sri Lanka’s aspiration to forge a sustainable economic future, where every worker not only survives but thrives.

As we navigate these complex waters, let us not forget the lessons learned from the struggles of the past. The betrayals and the partial victories are not just remnants of history; they are cautionary tales that must guide our actions and expectations. It is crucial for every citizen, not just the policymakers and the leaders, to advocate for transparency, accountability, and genuine progress.

In doing so, we honour not just the spirit of May Day but the very essence of what it means to fight for justice and equity in the workplace. As Sri Lanka continues to write its future, let us ensure that this narrative includes a fair and dignified chapter for every worker who has ever dared to dream of a better life.

Sri Lanka, our Ratnadipa, is at a crossroads, rich in potential yet burdened by past mistakes. The question now is: how do we leverage this wealth of resources, human capital, and cultural heritage? How do we ensure that the rule of law, transparency, and credibility become the cornerstones upon which we build our future?

This is a call to action, not just for the leaders but for each citizen. It’s a plea to recognise the collective power of individual actions. How can we, as part of this gem of an island, contribute to its shine? Are we ready to be part of this monumental transformation task to ensure that when the world looks our way, they see a light of innovation and integrity?

It’s time to reflect on these questions to engage in a dialogue among ourselves and the world. As Sri Lanka stands poised to redefine its course, let us be the architects of that destiny. Let us be bold, let us be brave, and let us be brilliant. After all, isn’t that what it means to be truly deserving of the name Ratnadipa?

(The Morning)

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