The other day when a 5-star hotel steward was serving alcoholic beverages on a tray, he was asked for ‘Bacardi and Coke’. He ran to the bartender to ask ‘what it was’. Then when a guest requested a whisky-soda mix, he mistook the ‘water’ for the soda leaving the guest bemused. The waiter was one [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Labour challenges in a new milieu


The other day when a 5-star hotel steward was serving alcoholic beverages on a tray, he was asked for ‘Bacardi and Coke’. He ran to the bartender to ask ‘what it was’.

Then when a guest requested a whisky-soda mix, he mistook the ‘water’ for the soda leaving the guest bemused. The waiter was one of the temporary hires from the Hotel School which occasionally fields requests for trainees when hotels are short of staff for mega-functions.

Just as Sri Lankan workers joined their global colleagues in celebrating May Day on Thursday, this striking episode in the post-war era is an example of a dilemma facing the country – a shortage of labour.

There are shortages in agriculture, the Free Trade Zones, in hotels and other service areas – both in skilled and semi skilled sectors.
There are at least four reasons as to why this is happening and why the figure of unemployment could be misleading.

1)The post-war era created new markets, new jobs and newly-required skills (in the IT sector in particular).

2) Growth of leisure sector from less than 500,000 in 2008 to over one million by 2013 and not enough staff to tackle the increased flows. Many Sri Lankans in this sector are working in the Middle East and other countries.

3) Reluctance to accept low paying and low-dignity jobs, particularly in agriculture, plantation and garment sectors.

4) Labour mobility: Many young people prefer flexibility and not secured employment. They want to be able to work at their own time, own pace and make their plans for pensions and retirement benefits.

Two developments this week reflected on these issues – a Business Times-Research and Consultancy Bureau (BT-RCB) Opinion Poll on labour and a draft survey on “Agency Hired Labour in Katunayake and Biyagama EPZs”.

The BT-RCB Opinion Poll found the majority of respondents agreeing that there is a shortage of workers for both skilled and unskilled jobs, and also that Sri Lankans are reluctant to undertake low-paying jobs.

On the flip side, during the discussion organized by the US-based Solidarity Center on ‘Agency hired labour’ which included the participation of trade unions, workers and employers, it emerged that a growing segment of the jobs in the free trade zones are being filled through outsourcing.

Labour recruitment agencies, a trend which began with oil-rich countries in the Middle East offering jobs from the 1970s, has spread to cater to demand in local homes for domestics, cleaners, caretakers, gardeners, drivers, care-givers, etc. Now this trend has expanded to the formal sector where small and large factories are relying on (unregulated) agencies to provide them labour.

Outsourcing has also taken root in the public sector with at least 2,000 of the 6,000-plus Sri Lanka Telecom workers, 4,000 (mostly bill collectors) of the 10-12,000 workers at the Ceylon Electricity Board and 500 workers from the National Savings Bank being agency-hires, according to trade unions.

In the garment sector, at least 25,000 of the over 280,000 workers are outsourced and this is growing, drawing calls from trade unions to provide them the same rights that permanent workers enjoy: decent work conditions, annual leave, maternity leave, joining trade unions, etc.

In the plantations, at least two companies have created a model where workers are provided plots to produce tea at their own speed and sell the produce to the plantations. The plantations are divided into two areas: very productive and least productive. Workers must work for the about four days in the very productive lots (managed by the company) and the rest of the three days is spent by the whole family in transforming the least productive lots into good leaf which is bought by the estate. This model (and its success rate), to overcome an acute labour shortage-high wage crisis, is being closely watched by other estates
Another emerging trend in labour is about those who belong to Generation ‘Y’, people born during the 1980s and early 1990s – a segment that daunts, in particular, the trade unions!

Most of them are not keen on permanent employment; prefer mobility and changing jobs; prefer working from homes; take care of their own long-term insurance and retirement needs, etc.

They are constantly on mobile phones, Ipads and on-the-go. Their time is valuable and if they can finish an assigned duty which can be done in 2 hours instead of the 8 hours spent by a normal worker, they prefer that option. Multitasking is their language.

Trade unions are grappling with these issues in the modern world of work and if they don’t change with the times, the unions become outdated and will swiftly lose their status in society.

An ageing population is another challenge with a sizable number, even as high as 40 per cent belonging to this (non trade union) category in the next half a century. There would be more older people in the workforce than younger ones, with the latter preferring mobile employment options. This issue would also confront the EPF/EFT (funds) with more payments (more people retiring/quitting) and less people joining the system.

Another worry is that organisations could soon run short of highly-skilled workers like software programmers, etc who may prefer to take short-term, highly paid contracts and work from home, rather than be stuck to an office.

In Colombo, there is a new trend emerging where some 50+aged skilled workers, even CEOs, are quitting to work from home, pay more attention to the kids and earn their ‘bread and butter’ through consultancies. They manage their own pension funds.Sri Lanka is thus at the crossroads of a labour dilemma linked to rapid growth in a post-war era, catching up fast with other developed countries, tackling Generation ‘Y’ and enforcing ‘Decent Work Conditions’.

On the other hand there is a growth in outbound migration of skilled workers on short-term contracts (Middle East and other countries) and for permanent reasons (US, Australia, Canada and UK). The Government in fact is encouraging the migration of skilled male workers without realizing that this policy is creating a shortage at home. A policy akin to the ‘left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing’.

There are no easy answers to these, essentially, post-war challenges. Thus rather than piece-meal and short-term proposals, what is required is a comprehensive survey undertaken jointly by the Government and the private sector with the inclusion of all stakeholders including Generation ‘Y’ for solutions to meet Sri Lanka’s labour needs in the next 25 to 50 years. World Bank and ADB assistance could be sought to eventually put together a labour requirement and ‘practices’ guideline for the next half a century that will also stand the test of changing governments.

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