This was one topic I believed was over the top of Kussi Amma Sera’s head, meaning the issue was too technical, complex and needed an analytical mind. Kussi Amma Sera discussing a crisis in skills, my foot and a half, I thought. But I was wrong. On this Thursday morning, KAS and her comrades – [...]

Business Times

Lanka’s crisis of skills


This was one topic I believed was over the top of Kussi Amma Sera’s head, meaning the issue was too technical, complex and needed an analytical mind.

Kussi Amma Sera discussing a crisis in skills, my foot and a half, I thought.

But I was wrong. On this Thursday morning, KAS and her comrades – Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu – had gathered under the Margosa tree in the garden – for their regular chit-chat.

“Aei api wedata pitaratin minissu genne? Apey minissu mey wedawalata kammeli nisa-ne? (Why are we importing workers? Is it because our people are lazy to do these jobs),” she asked, alluding to the influx of Chinese and Indian workers.

“Ada apey tharuna kattiya salliwalata vitharie godak kemathi rassawata wada, eka thamai ada kramaya. (This is because today’s young people are more interested in the money than the passion for working),” noted Mabel Rasthiyadu.

“Rassawal adu nisa, api salli aduwata weda kara (As it was difficult –then – to get jobs we worked for less money),” interjected Serapina.

Thereafter, I could only hear snatches of their conversation from my vantage office room window. Though Kussi Amma Sera’s early morning cup of tea was keeping me company, all I could hear was that “our younger generation needs to be doing these jobs, otherwise we would be importing labour not only for unskilled work but also skilled work” and “very soon we’ll be known as a labour importing country than a labour sending country”.

I’m not sure whether it was a newspaper article or picture of Indian workers or Chinese workers at a construction site that provoked this conversation, but it worked nicely since a statement this week by the National Chamber of Exporters (NCE) on a skills shortage raises some fundamental issues about the country’s policies regarding development.

There is no doubt that the country is facing a shortage of workers to keep the wheels of industry working, particularly in the garments and construction sectors. On one hand there is a demand to import labour, while on the other, there are strident calls opposing services components in the free trade agreements (FTAs) which, according to professional groups, are one-sided and will open the flood gates to unrestricted inflows of skilled labour.

The NCE says that according to a survey it conducted amongst its member companies, there are around 3,400 vacancies for jobs with specific skills. In this context, the chamber is appealing to the authorities to allow the import of skilled workers.

Many years ago, long before the vigorous debate over labour imports vis-à-vis FTAs, the garments sector was the first to be hit by a shortage of 30,000 workers or more, one of the reasons apart from rising costs why some of the large garments exporters opted to set up plants overseas.

In July 2017, then Chamber of Construction Industry (CCI) President Surath Wickramasinghe, speaking at a public event, said the anticipated shortfall in the workforce in the years to 2020 is expected to be 400,000 and noted that the Government has approved recruitment of 2,500 workers from Nepal and Myanmar as an emergency measure to meet the shortage.

To rub salt into the wound, Sri Lankan workers, it is said, have been found to be lazy, costlier and inefficient. Today’s carpenter cannot be hired for less than Rs. 2,000 per day partly also because there is a shortage in this sector.

In February this year, current CCI President Ranjith Gunatileke told the media that Sri Lankan workers were only 25 per cent efficient when compared to Chinese workers. He said Indian, Chinese, Nepalese and Myanmar workers were part of the local workforce now.

The NCE statement highlighted another common problem in Sri Lanka; rural graduates prefer an often, cosy but less-paying government job to a better wage, but hard working job in the private sector.

This becomes even more difficult when workers quit their private sector jobs to join the public service (calling it a ‘service’ in today’s context is actually a misnomer). This happened recently because the NCE said problems (of people quitting) arose after the Government announced employment opportunities to 10,000 graduates, in fulfilment of an election promise.

“The real issue faced by enterprises in the field of exports, is the requirement for successful candidates who are already employed in their export enterprises to accept the positions that are offered at very short notice, and in some instances requiring commencement of work on the day following acceptance of the offer,” the chamber noted.

“The immediate loss of employees by the private sector without prior notice creates immense difficulties for export enterprises including the fulfilment of seasonal orders, thereby disrupting productive operations. This is in the background of some exporters having incurred expenditure for local training, as well as overseas training in some instances,” it said.

Local youth also prefer state jobs because they have pension benefits and additionally, if they work closer to their homes, it reduces their living costs. The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s concept of 200 garment factories in the provinces so that workers would be close to their homes and also revitalise the village economy (with money circulating in the area itself, creating more jobs and entrepreneurship) worked to some extent. People are unable to save from their monthly wage when working in Colombo-based factories due to the cost of living in Colombo and the consumerism that goes with it.

The problem with Sri Lanka is that every issue is politicised. In an effective democracy, politics should be separate and independent from development, the economy and business. The fundamentals of an economy, business and development and its policy-framework are built on the singular purpose of enriching the country and society, not a political party, politicians or egoistic bureaucrats. But this is not what we see happening, over and over again.

According to Central Bank data, the level of unemployment is 4 per cent or less. In technical terms (and if this data are to be believed), the country has achieved full employment status and thus there shouldn’t be a need to create more jobs in the public sector, when there is no economic need but simply a political need.

The challenge is in honest and sincere administrations being able to convince rural youth that a Government job is not the best solution to a country’s progress. However, instead of sitting round the table such a “discussion” is unfortunately fought on the streets through water cannons and tear gas.

It is the same with the shortage of skills. Development growth policies are brought in without looking at the human resource needs (though there seems to be some effort recently to look at this issue). Furthermore, Government policy is to encourage skilled migration and discourage unskilled workers (partly to tackle the problem of domestic workers). Common sense tells you that with the development demands, construction and tourism sectors growing rapidly, Sri Lanka needs more workers at home than in other countries. The policy on skilled migration needs to be re-examined and not, if that is the case, solely the mandate of the Ministry of Foreign Employment. It should be a decision taken at the highest levels of Government because it impacts on the entire economy and development.

The clash between professionals and the Government over the FTAs, deals with, among other issues, on the need for a proper legal system to ensure foreign professionals planning to get jobs in Sri Lanka follow legally created structures like what is prevalent for doctors and accountants. The government needs to sit down with professional groups (there is a dispute over whether this is happening or not) and work some balance in these FTAs.

Sri Lanka cannot be frogs in the well either and needs to be connected to the global development structure of trade, investment and movement of people. This is as long as decisions are apolitical, are based on the country’s interest and not influenced by any other country or super-power, thus alleviating any fears of the Kussi Amma Seras, their kith and kin and professional associations.

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