ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 08
Financial Times  

Holidays – the bane of the country

By Rohantha Fernando

With increasing importance placed on national development and productivity the troubled question of the hour, is the fact that too many holidays in this country affect productivity and inevitably contribute to national loss.


Perhaps Sri Lanka is the only country in the world where there are too many holidays in a year. For example, this year the calendar dated holidays are;

Saturdays 52
Sundays 49
Poya days 13
Public/Bank/Mercantile Holidays 12
126 days

Casual/vacation/medical leave entitlement
42 days
168 days
Maternity leave 84 days(Excluding all holidays)

Total 252 days

Sri Lanka is the country with the most number of holidays in the world. If we were to forget for a moment how so many holidays in the calendar affects the economy of the country, then this would be a lotus-eating paradise indeed.

Each month of the Lankan calendar has at least one holiday apart from the usual weekends. Many months have two or more. Though the general public greatly enjoys this how does this affect industries, for instance like garment factories where delivery dates are crucial? And how does it affect any industry productivity wise? Can companies reach their deadlines when these holidays keep cropping up endlessly? What about foreign investors? How does it affect them when dealing with all this time off work? Do we really need so many holidays?

Holiday destination
It is not for nothing that Sri Lanka is referred to as a prime holiday destination. We are after all, a nation perpetually on holiday. In a good year where not too many Poya days overlap with weekends or other holidays, public servants in effect could end up working a four day week for 46 weeks of the year. Put it in another way, we could be on holiday for as much as 18% of our working time, not counting weekends. No wonder our country has been referred to as a meritocracy; they don’t come any merrier than us.

Pandering union leaders
Over the years politicians have pandered to union leaders by allowing more and more holidays in expectation that this benevolence would yield more votes. The whole idea that leisure is a privilege and not a right is yet to sink into Sri Lanka’s political and social ethos. The fact that every privilege carries with it an obligation is yet to penetrate the thick skulls of the political class.

Every holiday is an enormous privilege. For one thing, holidays are paid by employers, and a further 15 to 20 percent on the wage bill is a heavy load for employers to bear, especially in labour rich industries like garments. Holidays, therefore, add on directly to the cost of production, lessening industry’s competitive edge. Excessive holidays are one of the key disincentives to foreign investment in Sri Lanka. The addition of as much as 15 to 20 percent to the cost of production as a result of unrestricted holiday-making is something investors think very carefully about before deciding to set up industry in Sri Lanka.

Then again, there is a loss of production that holidays entail. The nation grinds to a halt with a long weekend almost every month and midweek holidays almost every other week. Sri Lanka Ltd, is running at a loss with budget deficits of the order of Rs.500 million a year. The last thing any company making that kind of loss is to give its employees 46 paid holidays a year. Yet, that is precisely what the Sri Lankan government does.

Dudley Senanayake’s ill-advised introduction of poya and pre poya holidays, with the working week structured on the lunar calendar, made Sri Lanka the laughing stock of the world, with its six, seven, eight -day weeks. Today despite having reverted to the western week every full- moon poya day is a holiday, and when full moons were added to the list of national holidays, no one thought to reduce the number of other holidays accordingly.

The breakdown of holidays (assuming there is no overlap with weekends) is roughly as follows: Buddhist -14; Hindu - 3; Muslim - 3; Christian - 2; cultural and customary - 4; add to that 21days of annual leave and 7 days casual leave. And then there is the 90 to 120 days of maternity leave to which women of child bearing age are eligible as often as they become pregnant which the employer and not the national social security scheme, must bear. This is why there is such a great gender disparity in private-sector employment.

Something the government needs to do urgently if it wishes to reach its target of 10%GDP growth is to cut down the number of holidays. How? For a start there is no earthly reason why every poya day should be a holiday. Granted, poyas are important in Buddhism, and many Buddhists do put the poya to good use by observing “sil”. However the issue here is not the nation’s piety but its poverty. If we do not work more, we will forever be poor, and if some religious niceties must be sacrificed in the interest of national development, then that is a sacrifice we should prepare to make.

Public service
Despite having one of the highest public sector to population ratio in the world and poor productivity and efficiency, Sri Lanka’s government servants normally work only half of the year.

The reason is that in 2008 which is a leap year with 366 days, government servants would be enjoying or entitled to a staggering 162 holidays including the weekends.

This high number of holidays account for 45% of the year. In 2006 there were 26 public holidays, five of which fell on a weekend. The 26 public holidays include 14 poya holidays and other religious and cultural holidays.

The 162 days of total holidays includes the week-ends and 45 privilege leave enjoyed by public servants. Sri Lanka was already notorious as a land of holidays, and it appears that “for public servants every two days of work will give them an additional holiday,” a productivity expert once said. Given the large size of government and plethora of regulations in Sri Lanka excessive public holidays does not augur well for a nation that aims to become globally competitive.

Traditionally during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year the country the country is virtually on holiday for over 10 days while April is “the” holiday month with a Poya falling on a Monday and the week finishing with a Good Friday (April 9) leading onto the Sinhala-Tamil New Year.

There have been much discussions, debates and studies undertaken to determine the adverse effects of excessive holidays on the economy and national development. Regrettably no tangible measures have been even considered to reduce the number of holidays.

Serious consideration should be given to make Saturday a half day (four hours of work) and to have a 44-hour working week, where as in most countries it is a 51-hour working week. There should be only SEVEN national holidays namely - Thai Pongal Day, National Day, Sinhala and Tamil New Year Day, May Day, Prophets Birthday, Vesak Day and Christmas Day, which should be Public, Bank and Mercantile Holidays.

The rest of the 19 holidays as per present calendar should be termed religious holidays, (Some of these are only Public and Bank holidays and are not Mercantile holidays). All new entrants after the effective date that this scheme is promulgated to be entitled to seven of these religious holidays irrespective of race or religion. No prior notice will be required by the employer as to which seven religious He/she intends taking.

Those in service at the time the promulgation is made should be given two years to fall in line. During the interim period those old entrants who work on religious holidays should be given lieu leave or an additional allowance.

Thus in the interim period and thereafter an office or work place will always be manned and business will be usual as of now when a few are away on annual, sick, casual or maternity leave.

Apart from holidays given the serious breakdown in business and manufacturing due to excessive holidays the private sector has been using national leaders to rationalize those. However due to political interests governments have been slow to react.

Sometime ago a cabinet minister went public saying that Sri Lankans work too hard and need rest justifying the excessive holidays.

A private sector analyst said that while Sri Lanka was back on the world map as an exotic holiday destination for the world, the country can also be a good market for other nations to lure potential tourists given the spate of holidays and long weekends.

The productivity expert whilst emphasizing the need to rationalize holidays was of the view that in a multi-religious and ethnic society such as Sri Lanka some holidays are unavoidable. In that context he suggested Sri Lankans need to work not harder or longer but smarter which is the key to boost productivity and efficiency.


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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.