No industry can thrive for long without a healthy balance between white collar professionals and blue collar labourers
Jayasiri Samaratunga, who has been involved in both the private and the public sector in the construction industry and thus is acutely aware of the problems afflicting both, once told me in straightforward terms, “No one wants his or her daughter to marry a mason baas, and that is why this industry lacks adequate blue collar workers.
In the end, we have to import labour, and in the end, if we don’t address that issue, we’ll have to keep looking outside.” Aptly put, considering that what is true for construction and engineering in this respect is true of every other field: no one wants his or her child to get down and get dirty in manual labour. We are expected to become doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants, and consultants. Those once held notions of honour and dignity in labour have all but completely gone, and what is left behind is a predicament. Addressing that predicament is no longer an option. It’s a necessity. A vital one.
Consider this. No industry can thrive for long without a healthy balance between white collar professionals and blue collar labourers. This isn’t a convenient truth, it’s the only truth, and insofar as the problems of labour shortages in this country are concerned, it’s the truth that matters the most. The Electricity Board needs its share of engineers just as much as it needs a share of workers and support staff, drivers and repairers, and the Water Board needs it share of assessors and experts just as much as it needs its share of meter readers.
From the ivory tower liberalism of the early days, we came to a consumerist society, which privileged practicality over scholasticism and which came to privilege subjects that reflected this new way of thinking
Forget the fact that the latter in both cases are paid lowly, and sometimes abnormally so, and remember the painful fact that even if they are paid handsomely, their jobs are looked down upon. It’s class consciousness at one level, a gross misconception at another. The ball, as always, has got to start rolling from one place. Our education system.
Our education system
If one peruses the history of our education system, one notices a radical shift from the immediately post-colonial period to the present. Right after independence, our education system, which incidentally had not yet bifurcated between the elite schools and the non-elite schools the way it has today, and which included in particular our Universities, continued to privilege a rift between education and its applicability. In other words, the social impact of what one learned was divorced from what one actually was taught. That is how the arts, more particularly the liberal humanities, were seen as ivory tower subjects, epitomised in novel after novel (Akkara Paha) and film after film (Walmath Uwo) which depicted this conflict as subsisting between the old and the young. Divorced from their surroundings, those who had studied and remained unemployed took to the streets, protested, and in the end, attempted to topple an entire Government (the historical progression from the one to the other has been charted by so many, including Gamini Samaranayake, who contended at the 1971 insurrection showed, for the first time, that the government was fragile).
From the ivory tower liberalism of the early days, we came to a consumerist society, which privileged practicality over scholasticism and which came to privilege subjects that reflected this new way of thinking. The arts, obviously, were out, and subjects and fields which promoted the white collar over the blue collar (in a rather crude sense) were up: the professional fields. An offshoot of this was the divorce of practicality and scholasticism of another sort; one which led many to perpetuate prejudices against manual labour to such an extent that manual labour was seen as something to evade. The end result, I think, is an agglomeration of professional ‘White Collarites’, at the cost of the workers and labourers on whom the future of any industry really depends. The results have been startling and stark; we are currently witnessing a sustained brain drain of those same professionals who owe their lives, and education, to this country.
Added to these are problems of proper remuneration, job security, and stability. Jayasiri Samaratunga told me as much when he observed, in relation to the construction industry, that “To date, we haven’t implemented EPF and ETF provisions for workers. To make matters worse, construction jobs are unstable, hardly the 9 to 5 job some make it out to be even now. If you’re a builder, for instance, you can’t expect to be in one place. Your work may take you to every corner of the country. We also have peak and off-peak seasons. During the monsoon period, construction jobs are few and far in-between. The solution, according to Samaratunga and (again) in the context of the industry, was “to not just attract, but retain workers in a way that accrues benefits to them.” But that has been stalled by another problem: “Most labourers are frequently seen as ‘freelancers’, who are goaded into one job and then abandoned. As a result, we have never bothered to take a proper census of the people in this industry.”
The generation which immediately preceded us were a twilight generation: they grew up in a carefree world, but grew up to a career life that called for routine over individuality. Just as the arts and the liberal humanities were seen as the only path to success, morally and economically, at a time when economic fortunes were changing for the worse, today medicine, accountancy, and the law are seen as preferred career paths because they were the preferences of that earlier generation. But what is true for them, as most would concede, isn’t what is true for the generation that followed them. In this sense two factors stand out.
The first is that payment methods and gateways have imploded to such an extent that freelancing, in whatever field, has become more the norm than the exception. Be it in such preferred industries as construction and journalism and even advertising, freelancing has come to represent stability in a way that even 9-to-5 jobs do not, because when set against a bleak economic backdrop (in Sri Lanka), even the latter seems unstable enough. The usual attitude towards work has, in other words, been replaced by one which does not view freelancing and hacksaw, non-routine jobs unfavourably.
This has been aided in no small part by the implosion of mobile technology (Sri Lanka’s mobile phone penetration rate, at more than 100%, attest to this) that has made the divorce between home and office virtually, though not completely, obsolete. Compounding this is the attitude of the young: as I have pointed out, the young I have interviewed feel that the old have abandoned them needlessly, and that the professionals – the accountants, the doctors, the politicians – have cheated on their country.
The second is the overriding problem of how we approach our education system; we think in terms of numbers, of quantity, over quality. There’s no point, after all, in opening up foundations dedicated to the arts if the objective of those foundations is to take in as many youngsters as possible. The end goal should be to transform them into cohesive artists, or whatever professional, without making them undergo a process of rote learning. In the system, what is often privileged is memory. That, and the obsession over passing exams (a cultural attitude which betrays our inability to adapt to the changing times, since if we can’t successfully wade through a system, the only solution we propose is that we get through it piecemeal, which is what passing exams is by the way), compounds the problem of quantities in our schools and universities so much that any attempt at reforming these flaws is seen as intrusions by outside vested interests. (To be fair though, such reforms, like the Chandrika Bandaranaike regime proposals for restructuring our schools, were in fact inadvertent exercises in structural adjustment and economic liberalisation, at the cost of the poor.)
The usual attitude towards work has, in other words, been replaced by one which does not view freelancing and hacksaw, non-routine jobs unfavourably
Sri Lanka’s population will continue to grow, and the demands on our resources, including electricity and water, will continue to grow with it. Unless and until the elders realise that not everyone can or should become an engineer or doctor or lawyer, that unless the divorce between practicality and scholasticism is addressed, along with our collective, recent distrust with professionals, and that it’s not something to be ashamed of to become a manual labourer or painter or filmmaker, we can’t hope for an education system that balances quantity and quality. In the meantime, we will continue eating up our country (what little of it is left), and insist that our children become the professionals we have enough and more of, until a brain drain on the one hand, and a severe lack of manual workers on the other, results. The end, if this is what it is, can only be bleak.