The signs are both qualitative and quantitative. Take restaurants: in Thimibirigasyaya, the Vietnamese restaurant has Vietnamese waiters, and the Korean one Koreans; in Kompannaveediya, the Japanese restaurant has Filipino waitresses while in Negombo, the night restaurant has a non-Sinhalese, non-Tamil speaking, South Indians. And, having lost my way off Horana, I ask for directions (in [...]

Sunday Times 2

Labouring the obvious: Solving worker shortage


The signs are both qualitative and quantitative. Take restaurants: in Thimibirigasyaya, the Vietnamese restaurant has Vietnamese waiters, and the Korean one Koreans; in Kompannaveediya, the Japanese restaurant has Filipino waitresses while in Negombo, the night restaurant has a non-Sinhalese, non-Tamil speaking, South Indians. And, having lost my way off Horana, I ask for directions (in Sinhala), from a pedestrian. Nonplussed, the gentleman points to himself and says “Indian”.

These personal experiences are symptoms of our huge labour shortage. One minister announces the approval of 2,500 workers from Nepal and Myanmar, and another says we have 200,000 vacancies.

We indeed do have a problem on our hands: A serious mismatch between the supply of manpower and the demand for it. Politicians cry that they will ensure employment to everybody implying a labour shortage, but ignore the current contradictions exhibited by the import of labour. Again, in another mismatch, university students, including Buddhist monks and those studying for arts degrees, protest against a private medical school not just for its presumed lack of standards but because it is private. This is despite billboards found all over the city and suburbs advertising for places in private institutions offering foreign qualifications either locally or abroad including in foreign medical schools.

Women should be trained to do men's work

And in a supreme irony, we continue to send the most vulnerable women for unskilled domestic work in once slave-owning and socially backward Arab countries.

The current shortage should remind us of colonial times where the British seized upcountry tracts of land declaring them “wastelands” for their coffee and later tea plantations. The local Sinhalese, who resented the takeover of their traditional grazing lands, were naturally reluctant to work on the colonisers’ plantations. And so, the British imported South Indian “coolies” thus disturbing the local demographics and leading later to much ethnic tension.

The demographic and ethnic tensions were eased to some extent by the implementation of the Sirima-Shastri Pact which led to the partial repatriation of the imported labour. The present labour shortage should not lead to such demographic tensions. Indications of reduced demographic tensions because of earlier British decisions are the sight in Sri Lanka supermarkets of many salesgirls of upcountry Tamil origin, albeit with a knowledge of Sinhala.

But there are lessons for us from other contexts. We were not the first country to face labour shortages; there are many others.

A general means of solving a labour shortage is to introduce machinery. A notable case was post-war Japan where the introduction of small-scale farm machinery in its low acreage farms at least kept some population in the rural areas. This was despite heavy urbanisation which started since the Meiji restoration of 1868 that accompanied Japan’s rapid industrialisation.
The conventional division of labour in Sri Lanka’s agriculture, say in the rice field, was that generally men did the ploughing and the hard work, while the women did harvesting and less strenuous work.

A few decades ago, because of the seasonal labour shortage, transient women workers or “battas” from Kegalle were brought in to work in the dry zone during harvesting. This was overcome around a decade ago by the introduction of a device popularly called “Tsunami” — a harvester-combine which could cut and bag the paddy. The semi mechanised outfit called the “Bhuthaya” was an additional adjunct to replace labour.

The conventional division of Sri Lankan labour underwent a change when in the 1970s export-oriented garment industries were opened and women were recruited for essentially assembly-line work. In the West, such assembly-line work was found unprofitable while the work force shunned it. Thus up to the 1960s, motorcar assembly plants in the West survived despite the boring assembly work. Later in Western Europe, imported foreign workers replaced the local assembly line workers. Still later, such repetitive work was transferred to the initial generation of robots. Robotisation has seen a rapid growth in recent years with the addition of Artificial Intelligence (AI). China, once a haven for cheap labour, today uses a large amount of AI incorporated robots.

The West faced a major labour shortage during World War II when men were conscripted to fight. Consequently, women were trained to do work in factories and the agricultural field. In the US, “Rosie the Riverter” (a self-explanatory slogan) was made a symbol of the new woman labourer during wartime. The bottom line was that women could be retrained to do the work hitherto done by men. And in our case too, they could be retrained to fill in the labour shortage. Let us list feasible solutions which other countries have adopted.

In Egypt (where I had been invited to give a lecture), getting driven from Cairo to Alexandria over the Sahara (which in Arabic means desert), I ask the driver what those tall buildings that we could faintly see through the sandstorm were. He replied that they were military-owned factories. A cursory examination of the industries owned and manned by the Egyptian military shows an interesting fact. The Egyptian military owns businesses in virtually every sector of the economy. The military runs tourist resorts, owns apartments, and industries varying from steel, cement, fertiliser, motor vehicles, home appliances and petrol stations. Egypt’s main artery, the Suez Canal is run by the military.

To take another country example, the initial rise of South Korea was due to experience of workers who had been employed by the military during the Korean War. Both Egypt and South Korea are key allies of the US. And what the US accepted in Egypt and Korea is just the opposite of what the US and its local puppets have been preaching to us. After the war, the Sri Lankan military had no economic presence except for a few restaurants on the A9 Road as there were no restaurants there, the LTTE presence having destroyed most economic activities. The anti-Sri Lanka cry against our military was to withdraw its bases in those areas once ruled by the fascistic LTTE. Even after 70 years of defeating a similarly fascistic Hitler, the US and its Western allies still have a huge military presence in Germany. Common sense dictates that after our 30 odd years’ war, it is suicidal to withdraw or downsize all our forces as the NGO Berghof Foundation wanted us to do during the war.

But maintaining a significant Army requires expenditure, not useful when there is no war. And when the former regime tried to use that spare manpower pool for public works, there was an outcry from foreign forces as well as their local paid puppets.
Examining newspaper advertisements of overseas vacancies, one notices that in the Middle East, payment for maids varies roughly from Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 50,000. Today in Colombo and suburbs, getting a maid daily to work from morning till late in the late afternoon is almost impossible. And their daily wages vary from Rs. 1,500 to Rs. 2,000. They make monthly Rs. 45,000 or up to Rs. 60,000, roughly equivalent to what our maids are paid in the Middle East. This daily wage for women is roughly the same for our unskilled male workers.

More than 10 years ago, my mother died in her mid-90s, the last five years being bed ridden and suffering from dementia. She was looked after two trained personnel supplied by a well-known company providing care for elders. They worked on shift basis. The cost at the time was Rs. 40,000 a month and on enquiring today, I find that the cost has shot up now to nearly Rs. 90,000. There are a significant number of professionals working outside the country who have difficulty in caring for their elderly parents. And clearly, there are opportunities for such labour intensive elders’ care, perhaps at a much lower rate.

Some of the solutions I have hinted at seem obvious. Stop sending our women for near slave work in Arab countries, retrain them to do men’s work, think of new jobs that women could do as our social system changes. It is not just the lack of imagination that prevents the search of these and other solutions. A prime reason is the multiplicity of our decision makers because of many ministers with overlapping responsibilities. This is not confined to the current government but also to the previous one.

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