A new opinion poll has revealed that the Government needs to pay serious attention to a shortage in a sizable segment of the unskilled workforce and in skilled jobs in some industries. One respondent warned that importing labour could lead to a change in demographic patterns and lead to the ethnic problems that arose with [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a shortage of skilled and unskilled workers, BT-RCB poll reveals

Labour imports could lead to similar issues when the British imported workers from India

A new opinion poll has revealed that the Government needs to pay serious attention to a shortage in a sizable segment of the unskilled workforce and in skilled jobs in some industries.

One respondent warned that importing labour could lead to a change in demographic patterns and lead to the ethnic problems that arose with the import of plantation labour during British colonial times.

The joint Business Times-Research Consultancy Bureau (BT-RCB) opinion poll on ‘Importing labour”, which dealt with other labour-related issues too, found that a large majority of the respondents believed there is a shortage of labour in both unskilled and (some) skilled jobs.

As usual the polls were conducted separately; the BT through an email data base and RCB by interviewing people on the street and together covered almost 600 respondents who came from all walks of life – office workers, business professionals, academics, homemakers, CEOs and retirees.

The results of the poll are given in the graph.Many comments were made on email and during street interviews.
Comments from the BT poll:

On shortage of unskilled workers:

- There is no shortage to the degree as highlighted by our politicians and those who wish to show that our economy is doing brilliantly well with little or no unemployment. However, certain sectors still operate their businesses using models applicable only to the last century. They are unable to employ or retain those already working in these sectors due to poor worker benefits or the low dignity attached to the type of work involved. Wage earning from plucking tea leaf by hand, climbing trees or employing a hook to bring the nuts down and pick them from the ground, tapping trees for latex, peeling cinnamon by hand are practices totally out of line with the present times we are living in. Skilled or unskilled it is a basic human right that no worker should be at the mercy of employers who lack imagination to use better models of productivity and technological solutions to improve the processes used for production.

- There is a need to modernise the environment where unskilled labour is required and make it attractive and honourable.
On shortages of unskilled workers:

- This occurs simply because there are countries outside which recognize and pay more for these same skills and reward initiatives thereby bringing out the best in skilled workers through training and other methods of motivation.

- Poor planning by educationists has resulted in churning out unemployable graduates with a militant mindset totally unsuitable and without soft skills required by the private sector.

- Vocational training institutes are far short in supplying the required numbers of skilled labour to the market. This situation is aggravated by migration of labour from Sri Lanka to other countries where there are better monetary advantages. The private sector should be encouraged to establish and run well managed vocational training centres.

On Sri Lankans reluctant to work hard:

- Not much intelligence is required to understand why. This is not peculiar to Sri Lankans only. Any person anywhere who is well informed (Sri Lankans with a higher level of literacy may stand out in better informed) will be reluctant to work for low wages in low dignity work.

- Able-bodied young Sri Lankans sit behind a 3-wheeler doing nothing 70 per cent of their time. 3-wheelers should be manned by people above 50 years of age.

- When young people are educated, they are no longer prepared to do work well below their expectations.
On reasons for the shortage:

- It is due to workers going abroad and newcomers to the market have not acquired the new skills required. Furthermore the rule of law is in tatters. Professionals don’t like to get hammered by government goons. Hard work is not appreciated and deal makers connected to government thrive, making big money without blinking an eyelid.

- Sri Lankans if trained and motivated will outperform most people anywhere. Our people are better endowed with the natural qualities required for the hospitality trade. They will acquire the skills required in tourism like taking ducks to water if properly handled by the employer.

- In order to remain competitive, we will have to import labour. Sadly we export more unskilled labour than skilled labour.

- Some Sri Lankans by nature are lazy. They want quick money, not hard-earned cash. However when they go abroad, they work very hard or are compelled to work hard. Why can’t they work hard here? The chances of getting a better wage would improve if they are ‘working hard’ instead of ‘hardly working’.

On importing labour:

- There may be a tendency (to import) but this is a dangerous and an unwise move. The per capita income though improving by leaps and bounds, if analysed critically shows that the poorest still remain very poor in Sri Lanka while wealth is being amassed through plunder and thievery by the rich. Solving the shortage by importing labour could provoke the poor to create social disharmony and should be avoided. There are other means to address the problems.
- This may be the solution if we want to improve our living standards through higher economic growth.
General comments:

- I think there is a shortage of labour in the FTZ due to low wages and the bad reputation that research studies and the media have given them. In the villages it is considered demeaning to work in the FTZ. Also there isn’t proper accommodation facilities .

- The media portrays masons, carpenters and plumbers as men who are old and also with torn tee shirts or banians. Some of them are shown toothless. So I do not think this is encouraging for the modern youngsters to join the profession.

- Give the profession a dignity so that youngsters would join the trade. Particularly now that the wages for these jobs are good. However, youngsters do not join due to the low esteem given to these professions.

- This may be due to a combination of a fall in the birth rate, migration overseas, government recruitment in armed services and other areas, skills mismatch.

Young people like to smartly dress and dislike working in a paddy field, respondents say

Here is a cross section of the comments received by RCB during the street poll:

On shortage of unskilled workers:

- Everyone likes to see their children doing good jobs and therefore they don’t direct them towards small jobs.

- People of this country with a British imperialist mentally still recognise white collar and blue collar jobs and that is why they consider a labourer’s job as low in status.

- The Central Bank says that the paddy and tea production is increasing year on year basis. If so how can one say that there is a shortage of labour in the agriculture sector?

- If the authorities take measures to pay high wages for workers providing them with necessary modern equipment and machinery then it is not difficult to give some status to ‘labourer’ jobs. It will also discourage people from seeking overseas employment.

- Sri Lankan youth are of the view that becoming a farmer is not up to their status.

- Youth like to dress smart and dislike working in paddy fields.

=There is no shortage of workers for jobs in tourism zones and many youth like to work in tourism related fields.

On shortage of skilled workers:

- Sri Lankans have the ability to learn anything very quickly. If there is a need for employees with skills and knowledge, what the authorities should do is to select GCE Advanced Level students with some talents and provide them with necessary training for suitable jobs.

-There are many unemployed youth in remote rural areas and they could be given proper training for jobs in tourist hotels and restaurants. There will not be any necessity to bring workers from abroad if we can harness the potential of rural youth.

- If the people are deviating from agriculture then we need to use modern machinery to replace manual labour. This is better than deploying foreign workers in agriculture.

- People seek jobs in the Middle East and Korea due to poor salaries paid in Sri Lanka.

- People are reluctant to work in the private sector because of less holidays and no pensions.

- In western countries there is no discrimination between the engineer and an unskilled worker. Therefore people in those countries select jobs in accordance with their skills and liking as all jobs are dignified ones.

- People are looking for foreign jobs as they cannot live here with meagre salaries and due to economic difficulties.

- The reason for the brain drain is the low salaries paid to professionals in Sri Lanka.

- Importing foreign labour will become a burden for the country in the long run.

- The government is planning to bring workers from overseas to get some commission out of it for their cronies.

- Importing labour will lead to changing the demography of the country and thereby increasing ethnic problems.

- Foreign workers will bring in various ailments and diseases including AIDS as well as create a drug menace in the country.

- Sri Lanka had to face many problems due to the deployment of labourers of Indian origin in Sri Lankan estates and a similar thing will happen if the government resorts to importing foreign labour.

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