Realising the potential of women and youth
The SLDU notes that Sri Lanka needs to create jobs opportunities appropriate for its labor force, in particular for youth and women. In 2017, the unemployment rate for those between 15 – 24 years old stood at 18.5 percent – as compared to just 0.9 percent for those aged 40 and over. Among all age groups, women were more at risk of unemployment than men.
“The way our tertiary system is structured now, it cannot react to fast enough to changes in the markets. We need to figure out models which can help us produce graduates demanded by the market,” said Dr. Nisha Arunatilake, Director of Research at the Institute for Policy Studies, sharing her conviction that finding a role for the private sector would inject resources and drive innovation in the education system. She emphasized that this must be done while ensuring equity and access to education for all.
Prof. Dayantha Wijesekera, former Vice Chancellor of Open University and University of Moratuwa, suggested that by reintroducing once popular apprenticeship schemes and making course admission criteria more flexible, universities could better support students willing to add new skills and knowledge to their resumes. “We should have more and innovative methods of attracting youth to the already adequate facilities for vocational training, rather than spending more money on infrastructure,” he added.
While such reforms would help young people across the board, more needed to be done to ensure women joined the workforce. The expansion of quality subsidised or community-funded childcare is critical, said Ganeshan Wignaraja, Chair of the Global Economy Programme at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Centre. He added that the level of harassment women faced on public transport and in the workplace was shocking and called for a strong, well-considered response from the state and from employers.
Addressing the legal and policy constraints creating bottlenecks
Critical to creating confidence in foreign investors and improving Sri Lanka’s business environment will be updating Sri Lanka’s labour laws. “Reform to the labour law is essential,” Ayomi Fernando, Industrial Relations Advisor for the Employers Federation of Ceylon noted, adding that efforts have long been underway to update and simplify the relevant laws, some of which date back to 1950s.
“Quite a few of them pose huge restrictions to employment generation, to people moving jobs,” she said, explaining that investors naturally baulked.
The laws also weren’t made with the modern market in mind – for instance, many local offices must now consider the working hours of colleagues in other timezones, for which no allowances are made. The rising numbers of freelance and part-time workers, and those wishing to work from home were also not addressed, creating challenges for employers and employees both.
Meanwhile, SMEs in Sri Lanka’s large informal sector needed incentives to formalize said Ralph, pointing out this would in turn give them access to institutional support, market linkages and financial backing that could help them grow. Studies estimate that 60 percent of all employed people work in informal work arrangements. Here, reforms could pave the way for extending the protection of labor laws to such employees.