For lovers of music, you must be familiar with the strains of a popular Boney M song, “It’s a Holi-Holiday”, which I heard on the airwaves this week. December is generally a relaxed month when everyone looks forward to a season of cheer, relaxation and holiday. And for those who love a jolly, good drink, [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Hooray … It’s a holi-holiday


For lovers of music, you must be familiar with the strains of a popular Boney M song, “It’s a Holi-Holiday”, which I heard on the airwaves this week.

December is generally a relaxed month when everyone looks forward to a season of cheer, relaxation and holiday. And for those who love a jolly, good drink, here’s an entertaining email, among the usual chain letters that one gets; ‘Dear liver, give me a break this month’!

So while enjoying your December holidays spare a thought for those who work, come sun, rain or holidays to keep the country alive. That applies to essential services like the police, armed forces and hospitals among other sectors.

For most the holiday season starts tomorrow (Monday) which is Holy Prophet Mohamed’s birthday followed by Uduwap Full Moon Poya which falls on Tuesday. Many people have taken four to five days off to have a long weekend. The week, December 19 to 25 (with Christmas falling on a Sunday) and the week, December 28 to December 31 (Saturday) followed  by January 1 (Sunday), are also virtually holiday weeks. Colombo will  be like a ghost town. Prepare for a lot of absenteeism and a holiday mood with little productivity in offices.

Productivity and too many holidays is the theme of today’s column as we discuss a Sri Lanka where merry-making and happy holidays, loads of it throughout the year in a “Newa gilunath band choon” environment, means the country keeps missing the bus because people are not working hard enough.

Everyone loves a holiday. But aren’t we having one too many? Can we become a Dubai, Singapore or run a 24-7 financial centre if the country is virtually on holiday for half the year?

Agreed the ‘Sri Lanka has too many holidays’ syndrome is a perennial grouse over the past 2-3 decades. And flagging the issue once again won’t change anything because it gets bogged down in politics and religion, not progressive development that the country desperately  needs and yearns for.

Well … here’s an out-of-the-box kind of solution to the problem, a case of having the cake and eating  it as well. A kind of “Newa gilunath band choon” scenario with a difference.

More on that later. First to brass tacks and the holiday syndrome in a new development paradigm where Sri Lankans need to work much harder (with  better remuneration on the way) to pave the way for a bustling financial capital city, an in-between of Dubai and  Singapore (which the leaders of the government keep harping about these days).

A reader in a 2001 letter appearing in another newspaper, offered these suggestions: (1) Cancel the Poya holiday; 2) Give two weeks off for the Sinhala New Year – as nobody turns up for work, in any case, in the post – New Year period! Also this is the hottest time of the year in this country; 3) A Two day,  holiday for Vesak and one day each for Thai Pongal, National Day, Prophet Mohamed’s Birthday and Christmas; and 4) For all other approved religious holidays allow employees of that religion to take the day off, if they wish, against their normal leave entitlement.

In a 2005 letter in the Sunday Times, a reader suggested appointing a Presidential Commission with representatives from all political parties, employers and workers to work out a suitable mechanism to reduce the number of public holidays with the focus on maximum productivity.

A July 2007 story in the Sunday Times put the number of holidays at a total of 168 – 52 Saturdays, 49 Sundays, 13 Poya days, 12 Public/Bank/Mercantile holidays and 42 casual/vacation/medical leave entitlement.

A July 2015 report by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) citing data from Mercer’s Worldwide Benefit and Employment Guidelines said India and Columbia are at the top of the ladder of countries with the highest number of holidays (18).

However, Sri Lanka was not represented in that survey. In the Asia-Pacific region, while Vietnam (10) has the lowest number of public holidays in the region below China and Singapore (11), Sri Lanka with 26 public holidays is top of the (holiday) chart. “In 2015, we had altogether 26 public holidays celebrating various religious/cultural events, with at least one day off in a month while the average number of public holidays in a month is 2 days (rounded off to the nearest decimal). Given that there are 260 weekdays, and 20 of the 26 public holidays fall in the weekday in 2015, 7 per cent of the weekdays are taken as time off by many workers, putting downward pressure on productivity and GDP,” IPS said, adding that this questions the economic implications of public holidays in the country and the need to strike a better balance between the needs of workers and businesses.

Thus,  however much the ‘too much holidays’ issue is raised, it would be drowned in a sea of protests. With workers accusing factories of demanding more productivity as the country  heads for a possible 5-day working-week (without the Saturday half-day), attempts to reduce the number of paid holidays could break the back of any regime.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka will never be able to achieve the upper middle income level and a vibrant economy at the current habit of working only half the year.

So here is an out-of-the-box solution and an innovative way to increase productivity, produce more goods and services and, at the same time, enjoy the same number of holidays

As a New Year resolution why don’t we consider adding an extra 15 minutes a day into work (not accounting for all the time spent outside answering calls or scanning your SMS texts)? Real, down-to-earth extra work for 15 minutes. For example add 15 minutes to your typical 8-hour work-day (maybe a shorter lunch break). If 15 minutes  are  added per day, then it makes it an extra 75 minutes (1.15 hours) or 49.15 hours per week against the normal 48 hour, 5-day week. Calculated at the rate of 15 minutes per day for say 100 days per year works out to an extra 25 hours (1,500 minutes) of productivity per person.

25 hours x the total workforce of close to 9 million works out to 225 million hours (annually). Calculate that in terms of productivity and this, though just 15 minutes a day, can substantially lift the economy. A small gesture in terms of productivity but in a holistic way, huge.

This could be similar to the volunteerism that workers in companies offer during their off-hours for CSR and social service. This could become an island-wide CSR project – 15 minutes to the nation and self. Think about it Sri Lanka Inc. It will not only enhance the country and company but the people  themselves.

In many areas, Sri Lanka is not making productive use of its citizens when small out-of-the-box ideas can make a change. For example consider vehicular traffic into the city which is grinding to a halt with speeds of 7 km per hour compared to 10-12 km some years ago. According to official data, some 275,000 private vehicles (averaging 2 persons per vehicle under conservative estimates) and 15,000 buses (30 persons in each) enter Colombo daily, making it a load of a million people who may be losing anything between 30 minutes to an hour on the road. That’s a huge loss in hours to productivity.

In making up for lost time a 15-minute-extra work-day,  one may argue, is not much. Nevertheless these are small steps towards greater productivity and together, a giant leap forward – as argued earlier in this column. As a start, I’m going to make ‘productivity’ my New Year resolution. Will you?

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