By Dr. Ganeshan Wignaraja

Dr. Ganeshan Wignaraja is Chair of the Global Economy Programme at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI). This commentary was originally published in the Daily Mirror on 11 July 2018. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not the institutional views of LKI, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.


Upon review of the recently published ‘Sri Lanka Development Update 2018’ by the World Bank Dr. Ganeshan Wignaraja highlights four kinds of labour market issues that merit serious discussion in Sri Lanka:


1. The need to raise female participation rates to increase Sri Lanka’s labour supply.

Amidst Sri Lanka’s transition to an aging population the World Bank report rightly identifies the need to raise female participation rates to increase Sri Lanka’s labour supply. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen candidly observed that investing a dollar in girls’ secondary education provides the best social return on development finance. In this vein, Japan is trying to increase female participation rates as part of the so-called ‘Abenomics’ structural reforms. Affordable child care is a key need, including in subsidised nurseries at large private firms and community-run crèches at village level, to encourage mothers to return to work. The top Sri Lankan firms should unilaterally set the example and others are likely to follow. Another need is ending harassment of women at the workplace and on transport through a ‘#MeTo’ social media movement, with compulsory workplace training in both the private and public sectors.


2. Poor English language ability of workers. 

While the mismatch in available and required skills in the private sector is mentioned in the World Bank report, a missing issue is the poor English language ability of workers, which hampers labour productivity in the country’s growing services sector. When wages rose in Bangalore’s global IT hub a decade ago, Indian firms did not come to neighboring Sri Lanka, partly due to a shortage of ample supplies of English-speaking graduates. Instead, Indian IT firms went to the Philippines to set up shop. The language problem is compounded by a lack of competent English teachers. A radical solution from East Asia is to import low-cost but competent English teachers from the Philippines on short-term work visas under a technical cooperation arrangement. A similar scheme may be developed for importing Chinese teachers, given a growing Chinese tourist and investor presence in Sri Lanka and a dearth of Chinese-speaking local workers and managers. 


3. Poor employability of graduates

The World Bank report discusses the unemployment of arts graduates. Almost half (48 percent) of university graduates in 2016 were from an academic programme in the arts. This indicates a poor return on costly educational investments at the tertiary-level and a source of social distress, which have propelled two youth insurrections in Southern Sri Lanka. As part of their recruitment efforts on university campuses, the private sector should offer paid internships during university holidays, to provide a taste of what it really means to work in a competitive business. These internships should also become a compulsory part of all degree courses. University careers services should be properly resourced and forge links with the private sector and state institutions. Furthermore, charging even affordable, modest fees for university education would attune young minds to job market prospects. It might also reduce incentives for antisocial behaviour like ragging and unjustified student protests.


4. A bloated public sector

The cost of a bloated public sector—accounting for 14.4 percent of employment—receives scant mention in the World Bank report. The public sector has historically been the employer of choice for the average graduate, due to lifetime employment and a pension. But fiscal constraints linked to a high debt to gross domestic product ratio of about 77 percent means that this is increasingly unsustainable. The New Zealand example of trimming the public sector may be instructive—reforms there included a combination of a national public-sector employment audit, natural departures due to early retirement, a redundancy/retraining scheme, increased lateral entry from outside and introducing new technologies. Salaries were also raised for remaining civil servants that provided incentives for improved productivity and service delivery. Whatever reform is possible within current political circumstance, it should be gradually implemented over a decade. 


Dr. Ganeshan stressed that the time is ripe for a few well-implemented measures to increase labour market flexibility and boost growth, and challenged the private sector to raise its game, in order to unshackle Sri Lanka’s growth from a burden of labour market issues.


Full article available here: https://www.lki.lk/publication/fixing-sri-lankas-labour-market-comparative-lessons/

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