UK rail strike strands commuters, pits workers against government

Workers and members of The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union stand on a picket across the street from Victoria railway station in London on Tuesday. (AP)
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Updated 22 June 2022

UK rail strike strands commuters, pits workers against government

  • About 40,000 cleaners, signalers, maintenance workers and station staff held a 24-hour strike
  • Two more are planned for Thursday and Saturday

LONDON: Tens of thousands of railway workers walked off the job in Britain on Tuesday, bringing the train network to a crawl in the country’s biggest transit strike for three decades — and a potential precursor to a summer of labor discontent.
About 40,000 cleaners, signalers, maintenance workers and station staff held a 24-hour strike, with two more planned for Thursday and Saturday. Compounding the pain for commuters, London Underground subway services were also hit by a walkout on Tuesday.
The dispute centers on pay, working conditions and job security as Britain’s railways struggle to adapt to travel and commuting habits changed — perhaps forever — by the coronavirus pandemic. With passenger numbers still not back to pre-pandemic levels but the government ending emergency support that kept the railways afloat, train companies are seeking to cut costs and staffing.
Sustained national strikes are uncommon in Britain these days, but unions have warned the country to brace for more as workers face the worst cost-of-living squeeze in more than a generation. Lawyers in England and Wales have announced they will walk out starting next week, while unions representing teachers and postal workers both plan to consult their members about possible actions.
Major railway stations were largely deserted on Tuesday, with only about 20 percent of passenger trains scheduled to run. Services will resume Wednesday, but lingering disruption means only about 60 percent of trains are due to run.
The strike upended the plans of employees trying to get to work, students heading for end-of-year exams and music-lovers making their way to the Glastonbury Festival, which starts Wednesday in southwest England.
Roads in London were more congested than usual as commuters turned to cars and taxis. But footfall was 27 percent lower than last Tuesday, according to retail analysts Springboard, as many people canceled trips or worked from home if they could.
Nurse manager Priya Govender was at London Bridge station Tuesday morning, struggling to get back to her home south of the city after spending the night in a hotel.
“I definitely will not be able to get a bus because they are packed. I will have to get an Uber,” she said. “My day has been horrible. It is going to be a long day, and I still have a full day’s work to do.” She planned to work from home, once she made it there.
The Center for Economics and Business Research consultancy said the three days of strikes could cost the economy at least 91 million pounds ($112 million).
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of industry body UKHospitality, said the walkout would cost restaurants, cafes and bars business that is sorely needed after two years of pandemic disruption, and “fragile consumer confidence will take a further hit.”
With inflation currently running at 9 percent, the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union says it cannot accept rail firms’ latest offer of a 3 percent raise.
But the train companies argue they can’t offer more, given current passenger numbers. There were almost 1 billion train journeys in the UK in the year to March — compared to 1.7 billion in the 12 months before the pandemic.
While the Conservative government says it’s not involved in the talks, the union notes that it plays a major role in the heavily regulated industry, including providing subsidies long before the pandemic, and argues it could give rail companies more flexibility to offer a substantial pay increase.
The government has warned that big raises will spark a wage-price spiral driving inflation even higher.
Electrical engineer Harry Charles said he supported the strikers — even though his normal 10-minute train journey to London Bridge took him 90 minutes by bus.
“Their money is not going up, and the cost of everything is rising,” he said. “The strike has caused a lot of hassle for people, but everyone wants be able to eat and be able to afford to put in a good day’s work.”
All sides are keeping an eye on public frustration, especially in the event of repeated disruptions, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to pin responsibility for the strike firmly on the unions.
He told his Cabinet on Tuesday that the strikes were “so wrong and so unnecessary,” and said “union barons” should sit down with bosses and come to a deal.
The government says it plans to change the law so that train companies will have to provide a minimum level of service during walkouts, if necessary by hiring contract workers to fill in for striking staff.
Johnson knows strikes can define, and sometimes defeat, a government. In the 1970s, a wave of walkouts against a backdrop of high inflation — culminating in the 1978-79 “Winter of Discontent,” when bodies went unburied and garbage piled up in the streets — helped topple Britain’s Labour government and bring Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to power.
Thatcher’s decade in office brought free-market reforms that curbed the power of trade unions and created a more flexible — and, for workers, more uncertain — economy. Britain has had relatively low numbers of strikes ever since. But that may change as the UK is hit with its highest inflation levels in decades.
Millions of people in Britain, like those across Europe, are seeing their cost of living soar, in part driven by Russia’s war in Ukraine that is squeezing supplies of energy and food staples, including wheat. Prices were already rising before the war, as the global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic fueled strong consumer demand.
But Susan Millson from south London, who abandoned a train trip to see her sister south of the city, blamed both sides.
“I just think it’s outrageous that there is no give and take between the unions and the government,” she said. “No one is giving any leeway at the moment. It’s awful.”

Germany arrests three on suspicion of spying on Ukrainian national

Updated 3 sec ago

Germany arrests three on suspicion of spying on Ukrainian national

Prosecutors said they scouted out a cafe in Frankfurt where the target person was supposed to be

BERLIN: German prosecutors have arrested three people suspected of working for an unnamed foreign secret service, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office said on Friday.
Ukrainian national Robert A., Armenian national Vardges I., and Russian national Arman S. were said to be traveling to Germany on behalf of a foreign secret service to collect information on a Ukrainian who was staying there.
On June 19, they scouted out a cafe in Frankfurt where the target person was supposed to be, the prosecutors’ statement said.

Court blocks Modi opponent Kejriwal’s release from prison

Updated 4 min 45 sec ago

Court blocks Modi opponent Kejriwal’s release from prison

  • He was released from detention to campaign partway through India’s weeks-long general election but returned to jail after voting ended this month

NEW DELHI: An Indian court stopped on Friday the release from jail of one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chief opponents, a day after he was granted bail in a long-running corruption case, reports said.
Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi and the leader of the opposition Aam Aadmi party, denies the charges as a “political conspiracy” by Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
He was released from detention to campaign partway through India’s weeks-long general election but returned to jail after voting ended this month.
A trial court ordered his release late Thursday, but before he could walk out of jail on Friday the country’s top economic crimes investigative agency, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), appealed to the Delhi High Court.
It suspended his release until it could decide on the appeal, local media reported.
The decision could come in “two-three days,” legal news portal Live Law posted on social media platform X.
Kejriwal is one of several opposition leaders in India under criminal investigation over various corruption-related probes, which Modi’s opponents say are being used by the premier to weaken any potential challengers.
The 55-year-old has been chief minister of Delhi, the region which includes the capital New Delhi, for nearly a decade.
He first came to prominence as an anti-corruption crusader, but his government was itself accused of graft when it liberalized liquor sales in 2021.
His party is a key member of the opposition INDIA bloc, led by the main opposition Congress party, which defied polls and expectations to deprive Modi’s BJP of its overall parliamentary majority in the election.

Hijabi heavy metal trio to make Indonesia’s debut at Glastonbury

Updated 6 min 49 sec ago

Hijabi heavy metal trio to make Indonesia’s debut at Glastonbury

  • Voice of Baceprot will play Glastonbury’s Woodsies stage on June 28
  • Hijabi trio has toured Europe, US, and was named to Forbes Asia’s 30-Under-30 list

JAKARTA: Hijabi heavy metal band Voice of Baceprot is set to become the first Indonesian act to perform at the UK’s iconic Glastonbury Festival next week, marking another milestone in the all-female trio’s trailblazing career.

More than a decade after first emerging, Voice of Baceprot was named in Forbes Asia’s 30-Under-30 list just last month. The group has toured Europe and the US, and released its debut album last year.

With lyrics that address issues from gender inequality to climate change, members of the group from Garut, West Java said on Friday that they hope to help improve the world for future generations through their music.

“We care about what’s happening around us, that’s why we make a lot of songs about what we ourselves experience, see, and hear. We only want the world that we live in to become a better place for the generations after us,” Firda “Marsya” Kurnia, who is the lead singer and guitarist, told reporters.

“We certainly feel excited and proud, especially after finding out that we are going to be the first Indonesian musicians to perform in Glastonbury. It will also be our first performance in the UK.”

Voice of Baceprot will play the Woodsies stage at Glastonbury on June 28, sharing the glory of performing at the legendary music festival alongside artists such as Coldplay, Dua Lipa and Cyndi Lauper.

“We will try to use this opportunity to also uplift Indonesian culture through music, including using tonal elements from Sundanese music,” Marsya said, referring to their ethnic origins.

Voice of Baceprot sings a mix of English, Indonesian and Sundanese — their native tongue. The word “baceprot” is Sundanese for “annoyingly noisy.”

Marsya met the other band members — drummer Euis Siti Aisyah and bassist Widi Rahmawati — at an Islamic boarding school and established the group in 2014.

Now in their early 20s, they have been overcoming prejudice and shattering stereotypes about Muslims and Islam.

“We try to introduce the other side that is closer to the truth,” Marsya said.
The band has already gained praise from Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, and was met with great interest during its 2021 and 2022 Europe tours.

“It was beyond expectation. Every time we have an international tour, I am afraid that no one will show up ... because we’re not that big yet,” Siti said.

“But after a few times performing there, we’ve seen how enthusiastic the audience was. Some would even wait for our performance.”

The trio’s accomplishments have also been noticed by the Indonesian government, which is supporting the group’s upcoming UK trip.

“This is a form of soft diplomacy,” Desra Percaya, Indonesia’s ambassador to the UK, told reports.

“Voice of Baceprot is truly taking up the role of Indonesia’s ambassadors and, of course, they are on a mission to make Indonesia proud.”


Medical brain drain worsens in Sri Lanka as 25% of doctors ready to migrate

Updated 34 min 50 sec ago

Medical brain drain worsens in Sri Lanka as 25% of doctors ready to migrate

  • More than 1,800 medical doctors left Sri Lanka in 2022 and 2023
  • Their salaries in the UK and Australia are often 30 times higher

COLOMBO: The biggest trade union of government doctors in Sri Lanka warned on Friday about a wave of economic crisis-driven brain drain among medical professionals, as 25 percent of them have already taken the necessary exams to find employment abroad.

Before the worst economic crisis pummeled Sri Lanka in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, on average 200 doctors would migrate to work in another country, according to Ministry of Health statistics.

The number has surged since early 2022, when the country defaulted on its foreign debt. Sri Lankans started experiencing power cuts and shortages of basics such as fuel, food and medicine, and the inflation rate rose to 50 percent a year.

“If we consider the situation within the last two years, more than 1,800 doctors have left the country in 2022 and 2023,” Dr. Chamil Wijesinghe, spokesperson of the Government Medical Officers Association, told Arab News.

Many more are likely to follow in their footsteps as GMOA data shows that at least 25 percent of doctors currently serving in the government health system have already passed the necessary exams to find employment abroad.

To practice medicine in the UAE or Oman, doctors need to take the Prometric Exam for GP Doctor. To work in the UK, they are required to complete the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board’s exams, while in Australia they have to follow the examination of the Australian Medical Council.

“Considering only those three … recent statistics show that nearly 5,000 Sri Lankan doctors have completed these exams and they’re waiting to take their decision of leaving the country,” Wijesinghe said.

“In government health institutions of Sri Lanka … there are around 20,000 doctors.”

He warned that an increasing number of those leaving were specialists, mainly in emergency medicine and anesthesia, followed by pediatricians, psychiatrists, neurologists and cardiac surgeons.

Some of the world’s most rigorously trained, Sri Lankan doctors are required by their country’s health system to obtain both local and international training before they practice as consultants. At the same time, and compared with the years of experience, they are among the most underpaid, earning between $170 and $720 per month.

In the past two years, those who had left for compulsory training in countries such as the UK, Australia or the US, are not willing to return.

“The high salaries they are being paid in those countries, compared to Sri Lanka, is the main reason. If you consider Middle East countries, it is nearly tenfold of the salary they are getting in Sri Lanka. In the UK and Australia, around 20 to 30-fold,” Wijesinghe said, adding that they are attracted by better working environments, better living standards, and education opportunities for their children.

“Majority of the Sri Lankan doctors migrate to Australia and the United Kingdom … They are migrating with their family members as well.”

He estimated that nearly 400 specialists have left in the past two years, which was becoming a “huge problem” for the Sri Lankan health sector.

“It has affected from the biggest hospital in Sri Lanka, the National Hospital of Sri Lanka, which is situated in Colombo, to the rural hospital system … Patients have to travel hundreds of kilometers sometimes to get their surgeries done,” he said.

“The brain drain of professionals and intellectuals from this country has affected many sectors, but it’s a well-known fact that health is the most affected sector.”

The GMOA has proposed to the Sri Lankan government ways to mitigate the brain drain of doctors, but as the solutions involve financial incentives and restructuring of the salary system, the Ministry of Health does not expect it to happen immediately.

“Increasing the salary is really difficult at this time since the country is just recovering from the economic crisis,” Dr. Asela Gunawardena, the ministry’s director-general of health services, told Arab News.

“However, we will do our best to attend to their needs to attract them to come back to their country and work for the nation.”

He was also hopeful that a sense of duty would help bring them home as well.

“Sri Lanka is the country which gave them free education from the kindergarten to university,” he said. “They have an obligation to help the country when in trouble.”

Kyiv says suspects of Kazakh activist shooting fled Ukraine

Updated 35 min 4 sec ago

Kyiv says suspects of Kazakh activist shooting fled Ukraine

  • Police said this week that a prominent Kazakh anti-government activist, Aydos Sadykov, had been shot and seriously wounded outside his home
  • “The suspects left the territory of Ukraine on the day of the attempted murder, crossing the border of Ukraine and Moldova,” the statement said

KYIV: Ukraine said Friday it had identified two suspects in the attempted murder of a Kazakh opposition figure in Kyiv and that the perpetrators had escaped to neighboring Moldova.
Police in Ukraine’s capital said this week that a prominent Kazakh anti-government activist, Aydos Sadykov, had been shot and seriously wounded outside his home.
The outspoken critic of Kazakhstan’s leadership has a large following on social media and was granted asylum in Ukraine in 2014.
“Two men carefully planned the murder of a journalist,” the office of the prosecutor general in Ukraine said in a statement, adding the suspects were both Kazakh citizens.
It said they had entered the country on June 2 from Poland and carried out surveillance on Sadykov before attempting to assassinate him on Tuesday.
“The suspects left the territory of Ukraine on the day of the attempted murder, crossing the border of Ukraine and Moldova,” the statement said, adding that both suspects are on an international wanted list.
The activist’s wife Natalia Sadykova said Friday that Sadykov remained in serious condition in hospital, and blamed Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev for orchestrating the attack.
“I was not mistaken, neither when I accused Tokayev of the assassination attempt or when I said that the shooter was a professional,” Sadykova said.
Tokayev has instructed Kazakh law enforcement agencies to cooperate with Ukraine to locate the suspects, his spokesperson said, according to Russian news agencies.
“Astana is ready to cooperate with Ukraine, including through Interpol,” the spokesperson was cited as saying.
Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into the shooting.
“The news of the attack on Sadykov during broad daylight in the Kyiv city center is deeply disturbing,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.