Sri Lanka’s CEB meter readers show how to use unionized power

ECONOMYNEXT – Meter readers at Sri Lanka’s state-run Ceylon Electricity Board have provided an object lesson on how to cut down work using union power to earn more overtime, while working half a day, after getting permanent employment, inside sources at the power utility say.

The current administration had absorbed over 3,000 outsourced workers who came from ‘manpower agencies’ to the CEB, sharply raising their salaries.

Most of the new workers have joined a strike called by the Ceylon Electricity Employees Union (CEEU), which is backed by Sri Lanka’s leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

Among the workers absorbed into the CEB were 1,400 metre readers; and because they lacked the basic qualification, about 600 were placed as casual workers.

Meter readers already earn over 100,000 rupees, and if the demands are granted, their monthly earnings can top 200,000 rupees, according to information that came to light in recent days. Before joining the CEB they were paid by manpower agencies on piecework rates. According to CEB officials, some read as many as 200 metres a day.


After joining the CEB, they started operating on ‘union norms’, refusing to read more than 60 metres a day.

A top union leader is also a metre reader. Union leaders are released from work to engage in full-time union activities. The CEB then suddenly had a ‘shortage’ of metre readers. As a result, the new administration hired about 500 more workers.

They then had to be paid overtime. Metre readers are paid 1.5 times overtime on holidays and double overtime on Sundays.

CEB meter readers can now earn over 120,000 rupees a month. This is around the same salary as the entry-grade engineer who must have a university degree.

Next year, from January, all CEB employees will get a 25 percent hike, allowing meter readers to earn up to 150,000 rupees or more.

But they joined the JVP-backed strike demanding an even greater hike, with a salary based on a 1:6 formula with the CEB general manager, which means the lowest paid CEB worker should get at least one-sixth the salary of the CEB general manager.

Study overtime

In any case, CEB metre readers work only about half a day and mostly visit customer premises in the morning.

Most CEB customers are familiar with the practice where meter readers hardly turn up at 4.00 o’clock.

A senior CEB official said other workers in the CEB, technical and non-technical workers have to work a full day.

Being field staff, some meter readers do other work like driving a three-wheeler. Others use the spare time to study for internal exams and move onto higher grades.

“Because meter readers do not work a full day, they used it to study for internal examinations and pass them,” the official said. “Other CEB employees have to work a full day and do not have time to study. This is a remarkable situation.”

If the 1:6 ratio demanded by the Ceylon Electrical Workers Union is given, the basic wage of a metre readers will go up to 81,300 rupees, with earnings with overtime going up to 187,786 rupees, according to information that came to light during the strike.

After next year’s 25 percent hike, monthly earnings of a metre reader could go up to 234,733 rupees.

Sri Lanka’s state-run Sri Lanka Ports Authority also pays massive above-market salaries.

A ports minister once related the following story to journalists. He had given his salary check to the office assistant to deposit in the bank. The office assistant had come back looking troubled and asked the minister if everything was ok. The minister had asked why he was asked the question. “Amathithuma, are they cutting your salary? I am asking you because my salary is higher than yours.”

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