Aldoris, the choon-paan karaya, had come down the lane in his modified tuk-tuk offering his hot-hot breakfast pastries. The trio had purchased some ‘kimbula banis’ at the gate and while Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu went to the bench under the margosa tree, Kussi Amma Sera walked into the kitchen, placed the food on a plate [...]

Business Times

Behind-the-scenes SMEs


Aldoris, the choon-paan karaya, had come down the lane in his modified tuk-tuk offering his hot-hot breakfast pastries. The trio had purchased some ‘kimbula banis’ at the gate and while Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu went to the bench under the margosa tree, Kussi Amma Sera walked into the kitchen, placed the food on a plate and walked out towards the margosa tree, also carrying three mugs of tea.

Settling in, Kussi Amma Sera started the conversation, saying, “Mata ahuna aanduwa ennath karanna yanawa kiyala pita-rata rassawal karanna yana ayawa (I am told that the government has agreed to vaccinate migrant workers before they go abroad for work).”

“Eka honda adahasak ne. Etha-kota apita thava-thavath pita rata rassawal hoya ganna puluwan-ne(That’s a very good idea. It will help to get more jobs abroad),” said Serapina.

“Panas daahakata wediya ennath karanna wewi, meda pera diga rassawal walata yana ayava. Eka loku ganak (They would have to vaccinate over 50,000 workers finding jobs in West Asia. That’s a lot),” noted Mabel Rasthiyadu.

“Ow, eka loku ganak. Eth ithin aanduwa thava thavath ennath genna gannawa-ne ena maasa-tike. Eh wenakota hatata wedi aya okkamata ennath dekama gahala-ne (I agree that’s a lot, but the government is gradually getting more and more vaccines and in the next few months, those above the age of 60 years would have received both vaccinations),” added Kussi Amma Sera.

I was amazed at their knowledge of the vaccination drive and efforts to vaccinate departing migrant workers. As I reflected on their discussion, my attention was drawn to the ringing phone. It was ‘Shifty’ Silva, the always-inquisitive IT expert who keeps tabs on various other developments.

“Hello…hello ‘Shifty’, how are you,” I asked pleasantly, not having spoken to him for a long time. “Fine… fine. I was wondering about how SMEs and small businesses have been managing during the pandemic,” he said.

“Struggling… like many businesses they have been struggling with bank loans although moratoriums helped to ease the crisis. There have been a lot of job losses as small businesses don’t have deep pockets like big businesses to sustain themselves in a crisis,” I said.

“I read in the newspapers that event managers were also having a hard time. Who are event managers?” he asked.

“Well… they are involved in organising events and are hired by business and other groups. They are also engaged in planning and organising weddings which is a big business. All these businesses are struggling these days,” I said and after venturing into other areas including politics we ended the conversation.

Interesting that ‘Shifty’ should mention event managers since I had followed a media conference held both online and in a hotel function room where the Event Management Association (EMA) of Sri Lanka poured out their woes on how they were given shoddy treatment by the government during the pandemic and for 15 months have not had any work.

The media was told by EMA President Roshan Wijayaratne that this is a multimillion-rupee industry with 100,000 direct employees and many more indirect workers. This sector represents those who handle corporate events, wedding planners, the entertainment industry, sound engineers, lights technicians and allied fields, often working behind-the-scenes to ensure a perfect corporate event with precision, a faultless concert or dance programme, seminars and other events.

Event managers and others involved in the industry were not part of any industrial body until they banded together – there are more than 60 members in the association – in late 2018 to raise their voice over the numerous problems they faced particularly when there was a constitutional crisis in the country with two Prime Ministers after President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister in a caretaker Cabinet. On December 13, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that President Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament before the end of its term was unconstitutional, thereby restoring Ranil Wickremesinghe as the prime minister.

However, due to the uncertainty in December, many events were cancelled or postponed, a major blow to the event management industry. That crisis and uncertainty then continued with the Easter Sunday bombing and as this small industry was just waking up in early 2020 with many events planned, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country like a thunderbolt. “Ever since then, we have been struggling,” said Wijayaratne, adding that their members have invested Rs. 10 million to Rs. 500 million and beyond on equipment and if such equipment is not used regularly, it gets damaged due to the high moisture content in Sri Lanka.

One of their biggest complaints is that the health authorities have allowed weddings to accommodate 25 percent of the hall capacity or 150 guests, while corporate events like brand launches, seminars, workshops or company award events (many happening towards the end of the year) are restricted to 50. “Why are we restricted to 50 pax for corporate events when weddings can have 25 percent of the hall space or 150 pax? No company will organise an event with 50 pax.  They would rather get an in-house hotel sound and lights system than hiring us,” he said.

He appealed to the health authorities to address this discrimination as they are prepared to follow the health guidelines to the letter. The EMA has drawn up its own set of health and safety guidelines and presented it to the authorities. Wijayaratne said there were instances where some hotels had violated the guidelines by accommodating more than the prescribed number at weddings and said the authorities should have taken action against them.

Another EMA official said that there was a moratorium on loans but once this period ended, the banks wanted them to pay the full interest plus capital or take another loan to pay up.

“How can we take another loan when we can’t even pay the first loan? We need another grace period to pay back loans,” he said.

Another planner said that they were struggling for many months without work since weddings had been postponed by couples due to these uncertain times.

“If there is a 4th wave of the pandemic (and if event restrictions are re-enforced), it will lead to a total collapse of our industry,” said a worried Wijayaratne.

The events industry is generally made up of many who work behind-the-scenes and until those in the industry came together to form an association, not much was known about their work. The association has given a new impetus to the events management industry, providing a voice and recognition in the country’s industrial and service-oriented space.

The government needs to listen to their litany of complaints and provide some relief. For the moment, what they are asking is to be treated equally and allowed 150 pax at corporate events just like the number permitted at weddings.

Kussi Amma Sera walked into the room with my second mug of tea just as I was winding up my column. As she placed it on the table and left the room, I wondered about SMEs struggling through the pandemic with only outflows (expenses) and no inflows (income) and the events industry in particular since even though there is a relaxation in health guidelines to hold an event, they are still facing many difficulties.

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