A look at Sri Lanka’s labour in a post-war economy

As the sun sets work at the Colombo Port City Project continues.

In Sri Lanka’s post-war economy, studies on labour and livelihoods indicate deep structural inequalities.

When we look at the global political economy, we can see that the expansionary dynamics of the past forty years have produced an economic system that acquires and controls resources and labour easily, and supports production, marketing and consumption on a global scale.

An increase in automation within this system has also displaced millions, either from traditional methods of production, such as farmers in Mexico, or from their traditional sites of production.  It has resulted in people being forced to move to the city or a foreign country in order to survive. The International Labour Organization (ILO) noted in 2015 that this renders many to what is termed as structurally regulated “surplus or expendable status.”

The impacts of this are felt in varied ways. Temporary and part-time (including ‘zero hours’) contracts have become increasingly common, contributing to what is termed as the ‘precarity’ (precarious existence) of working life even in the world’s richest nations.  For unskilled workers, the picture is often far worse, resulting in a denial of basic rights. Such unskilled workers often hail from countries that have poor infrastructure and poor education, and, as migrant labour, constitute what political economists refer to as a new form of docile labour who easily fit the demands of global capital for flexible, hard-working, but ultimately disposable labour. Critical political economists would see this as a time of strange contradiction and instability where the weakening of the relative power of workers’ effective demand over the past forty years of neoliberalism has contributed to the stagnation of the capitalist world, causing permissive but endless cycles of precarity.

A welder hard at work as he balances on a barrel during the construction of the Colombo Port City in 2017.
A welder hard at work as he balances on a barrel during the construction of the Colombo Port City in 2017.

It is a difficult time to be a highly skilled worker, but it is a most precarious moment to be an unskilled labourer, within a system that has no inbuilt framework to sustain either the worker, or the environment in which the worker exists. Yet, the worker is still important, and must survive for the system itself to be sustained, as the worker is also the buyer of the commodity.

In Sri Lanka’s post-war economy, this complexity resonates heavily, and has lopsided impacts in terms of labour capacity and research. Much of this is due to fundamental disparities within the system. The period during the war institutionalised living precariously, to the extent that populations in the conflict affected areas actively chose not to engage in permanent occupations. Most Sri Lankans, especially those in the North and the East, simply focused on earning ‘something’ on a daily basis, not least because they were faced with the breakdown of traditional livelihoods during this time.

Within Colombo and its immediate environs there is a highly educated, affluent, and extremely motivated set of workers.  They are highly responsive to the flexibility of knowledge and location that is required of the global labour force and choose a precarious but self- sustainable lifestyle.

Yet, there is a second kind of post-war economy, one that is undergirded by horizontal inequalities and produces a kind of disposable labour which is relegated to an unsustainable precarity. These are workers who face barriers with regards to education, geography, networks of influence, environmental and resource pressure, patronage, and direct post-war impacts. The 2014 World Bank report, Building the Skills for Economic Growth and Competitiveness in Sri Lanka, concludes that skills shortages and mismatches are an impediment to Sri Lanka’s growth aspirations and need to be urgently addressed. Studies conducted by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) over many years note that the labour market does not necessarily provide decent and secure forms of employment, and sheds light into the precarious job categories available.  These studies also highlight the multidimensionality of Sri Lanka’s post-war labour market, and the particularities of precariousness faced by Sri Lanka’s workers.

The rising Colombo Port City is seen in the background as people jog on the Galle Face Green in 2017
The rising Colombo Port City is seen in the background as people jog on the Galle Face Green in 2017

Indeed, the existing gap between high formal educational attainment and market demands, as well as the mismatch between career aspirations and available job opportunities is central to the problem of youth unemployment in Sri Lanka. While Sri Lanka’s unemployment rate in 2015 was 4.7%, the youth unemployment rate was much higher at 20.8% (Department of Census and Statistics, 2015).  Academics and policy makers often note that in Sri Lanka, an estimated 140,000 students complete general education every year without having acquired job-related skills. According to employers engaged with CEPA, Sri Lanka does not produce enough of the job-specific technical skills that employer’s value. Language skills, especially English, and computer skills are also limited to only a small portion of the workforce, 20% and 15% respectively, which is extremely inadequate from an employer’s point of view.

Debt, as many have noted in recent studies and newspaper reports, is another troubling issue for Sri Lanka. This high level of debt is linked to difficulties in accessing loans and insurance schemes, even those set up by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, not least because the current undertaking of many households in simply  re-establishing of their occupations. CEPA studies note the correlations between a households’ ability to increase productivity and the failure to extend credit schemes to these households. Such a situation also calls for engagement in non-traditional livelihoods for which there is little knowledge or training. The situation is further complicated by social difficulty, where, certain livelihoods are seen as demarcating a socially inferior status.

Female headed households were found to fare worse than their male counterparts, reporting lower asset wealth, with this insecurity further increasing if the household belonged to a minority ethnic group.  A study of women beedi rollers highlighted the near slave-labour conditions that elderly women live in. These women find themselves trapped in a ‘necrocapitalistic’ situation, literally ‘working themselves to death.’  This only increases families’ willing to engage in debt creation activities, therefore rendering poverty reduction efforts ineffective.

Women in the workforce are also troubled by having to negotiate male-dominated spaces, especially in the tourist industry. Within their own communities, Tamil women who have found any kind of work in hospitality are seen as having a morally dubious character.  Studies conducted on tourism, as well as rates of female labour participation highlight how the high frequency of sexual harassment limits livelihood options for women throughout the country. Indeed, across the board, women’s ability to be a successful part of the workforce has been hampered either by the decisions made by males in their families or by the strictures of gendered, ethnicised/caste social spaces.

Construction workers
Construction workers

Understanding the tourism industry is not only important to realising  a woman’s situation in the workforce. There is also the problem that the tourism industry is not boosting livelihoods but is reproducing a militarised political economy. Within this, displacement is noted as a significant problem amongst the households studied.

CEPA studies note the problems caused by the speed of resettlement, the limited rehabilitation of conflict affected areas, and the lack of assistance given to refugees as obstacles to the resumption of livelihood activities.  There is not so much a problem of a lack of allocated state resources, but the ambiguity of the conditions of return and resettlement that make life precarious. Adding to this is the manifestation of a throwaway culture, in which labour is increasingly seen as disposable.  A study carried out in Passikudah for instance found that locals are in low-paid jobs, which are also frequently at the bottom end of the scale, and therefore create further uncertainties.

This continues much of the exclusion and injustice that marked the period prior to and during the conflict. It is conflated by unequal access to land that impact livelihood trajectories. There is an unwillingness of households to engage in long term activities in case of future displacement. Others are unable to return to traditional livelihood activities as their land has been leased out. In the case of fish industry, disputes between Indian and Southern fishermen have limited the ability of fisher communities to recover.

No time to relax. Women hard at work in a garment factory taken in 2017.
No time to relax. Women hard at work in a garment factory taken in 2017.

It is clear that a nuanced understanding of local context and social culture are imperative for sustained support of livelihoods in these conflict affected areas, for labour markets and donors often miss the point of how people are making a living. Policymakers must pay close attention to the substance of economic transitions after the war.  They must rethink the links between work and violence and think contextually about how markets are structured.

Most importantly any restructuring of the labour force must ensure people- centred market outcomes.

Anupama Ranawana is a Senior Research Professional at CEPA, and  currently researches structural inequalities in the post-war economy.

The Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) is an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty-related development issues.  CEPA believes that poverty is an injustice that should be overcome and that overcoming poverty involves changing policies and practices nationally and internationally, as well as working with people in poverty.  CEPA strives to contribute to influencing poverty-related development policy, at national, regional, sectoral, programme and project levels.

To access the studies mentioned here please visit www.cepa.lk

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