A private bus conductor recently issuing tickets on the 120 Kesbewa-Pettah route was questioned by a passenger on the ticket price to Colombo Fort as he had given the wrong balance. Midway through the journey, the pair had a roaring argument. The reason for the error, it transpired, was that the bus conductor was temporarily [...]


Hit by manpower shortage services run on low gear


Nuwan Dinesh Kumara: A bus owner hiring people to work on daily pay to work as conductors

A private bus conductor recently issuing tickets on the 120 Kesbewa-Pettah route was questioned by a passenger on the ticket price to Colombo Fort as he had given the wrong balance. Midway through the journey, the pair had a roaring argument.

The reason for the error, it transpired, was that the bus conductor was temporarily hired for the day as the regular one had taken up manual labour. The driver told the Sunday Times that many conductors, even drivers, are taking on such work as their income from the public transport sector was inconsistent.

The economic crisis and COVID-19 has seen an increase in skilled and semi-skilled workers in key industries and services sectors leaving their jobs to take up daily-paid labour. This has caused a manpower shortage. Bus conductors and drivers, three-wheeler drivers, tea plantation workers and tourism industry employees are among them.

Mohammed Rizvi: Vice President of the Pettah Three-Wheeler Driver's Association

W. Ishan, a conductor on the Colombo-Kurunegala route for the past eight years, is considering migration. “I’m looking for daily-paid work as a mason in addition to working on the bus,” he said. “We won’t be able to make ends meet if we work solely in the bus service.”

“My transport service has also been hit by the unavailability of skilled bus conductors,” said Nuwan Dinesh Kumara, a bus owner from Minneriya who has been in the sector for nearly 12 years. “Now I’m hiring people on daily pay to work as conductors.”

Mohammed Wassim, a full-time conductor on the Colombo-Badulla route, now prefers daily-paid manual labour over spending hours on a bus. “We travel 18 hours per day and only get Rs. 2000 but in manual labour work we can get Rs.2500 for just seven to eight hours per day,” he explained.

W. Ishan: Bus conductor looking to migrate

There is a decline in labour, too, in the three-wheeler business. The All-Island Three-Wheeler Drivers Union is concerned that the absence of a regulatory mechanism for the sector has further accelerated the decline in service. He urged the Government to speedily devise a process to register full-time professionals and also introduce an age limit for drivers.

“For the past two decades, we’ve been trying to regulate the profession,” he stressed. “There is still no solution. Due to a lack of hiring, full-time professionals in the field who are looking for alternative labour positions.”

Anura Priyantha, a full-time three-wheeler driver around Kesbewa for over eight years, has switched to drilling wells as he can cover his family’s daily costs in four to six hours without hassle.

“We can’t make more than Rs.1000 (a day) driving a taxi owing to the bad economy,” he explained, adding that half their income goes towards fuel and spare parts. “It’s quite difficult to support a family on the revenue we get from the taxi.”

Mohammed Rizvi, Vice President of the Pettah Three-Wheeler Driver’s Association, counts 25 years of experience. The number of taxis using the three-wheeler park at the Fort Railway Station is on the decline, he said.

“We had 40 drivers assigned to this park, but only half now show up for work,” he claimed. “We have no income the whole day if there’s a train strike. We know only how to drive taxis. We can’t take up labour jobs.” They also have to pay the Railway Department Rs 90,000 a month for the parking space.

Before COVID-19 and the financial crisis, a lot of business people came to Colombo and he had daily hires, said Susantha Ranjith. “Now we wait all day in front of the Pettah Private Bus Stand but get only a handful of hires.”

Transport service hit by the unavailability of skilled bus conductors. Pix by Akila Jayawardana

There were multiple calls for a policy change in the public transport sector, tourism industry and tea plantations. Tourism plays a role in advancing Sustainable Development Goals and provides thousands of jobs. It was imperative to mitigate negative impacts on livelihoods, especially for women, youth and informal workers.

Most of the informal workers in the tourism industry have lost their jobs and moved on to other ventures, said Mahen Kariyawasam, Past President of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO). He called for some form of Government intervention.

Susantha Ranjith: Only a handful of three wheeler hires

“The majority of laid-off employees were recalled but most had shifted to other industries,” he continued. “For example, I worked with a driver who now runs a poultry farm. He is adamant about not returning. Many employees have moved on to other work despite there being plenty of openings now in our industry.”

Rachitha Milanka counts 17 years as a travel guide but is now the personal driver of a private company’s General Manager. “I can’t work in the sector because I’ve lost both my vehicles,” he narrated. “The leasing company has taken over one and I had to sell the other to settle the lease. Without my own vehicle, I can’t undertake round tours.”

The labour scarcity in tea plantations, meanwhile, has worsened. Workers have fought over six years to raise their minimum daily wage to Rs.1000 but the Government and the regional plantation sector corporations have not done so, said S.T. Ganeshalingam, Convener of Movement for Plantation Peoples’ Land Rights (MPPLR).

Anura Priyantha: A three wheeler driver around Kesbewa for over eight years has switched to drilling wells. Pic by Indika Handuwala

“The tea plantation sector is experiencing lower output, and most employees are now hesitant to return to the field,” he said. “Crop losses are occurring as a result of the fertilizer shortage, and workers are unable to sustain in this field.”

Labour laws cover just 40 percent of workers, said Prabath Chandrakeerthi, Commissioner-General of Labour. “Informal sector workers who make up the remaining 60 percent do not fall under the Labour Department’s purview,” he said. The Department plans however to formulate a social protection fund for this category. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is providing technical assistance and a committee is working on it.

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