Yes, Sri Lanka has too many public holidays

  • Sri Lanka has 26 listed public holidays (as per 2020 list)
  • Our public officers generally have around 125 days holidays per year
  • Public holidays are being criticised due to their adverse effects


Sri Lanka is quite famous in creating world records. A few of them are good records but most of them are bad ones. At the moment we have the record of being in 2nd position among the countries which have the highest number of public holidays. 
By 2020, we will definitely become first. Whether to celebrate or to cry on the achievement depends on whether you are a public servant or not. One might even ask, “How can you predict it with such confidence?” A fair question! So, let us analyse.
Sri Lanka has 26 listed public holidays (as per 2020 list). Cambodia has beaten us with 28.Sri Lanka is followed by India and Kazakhstan with 21. 

Last month the Kingdom of Cambodia decided to reduce the public holidays from 28 to 22 days from next year. In a major shake-up of the Kingdom’s public holidays, the Khmer New Year break has been increased three to four days, while the King’s three-day birthday celebrations will be reduced to one. Some other “less important” holidays have been pruned. 
With these changes in Cambodian public holidays calendar, Sri Lanka will move up to the leading position. When Sri Lanka stands alone at the top, let us compare the number of public holidays enjoyed by the work force of different nationalities. In the Asia/Pacific region, the Philippines follows with 18 and then there are China, Hong Kong with 17 holidays each. Thailand receives 16, Malaysia and Vietnam 15, Indonesia 14, Taiwan and South Korea 13, Singapore 11 and Australia and New Zealand. 10. 
The average number of holidays for countries in the G20 – the 20 nations that account for 80% of world trade – is 12.
Europeans don’t fare too badly with Sweden and Lithuania offering the most at 15, followed by Slovakia 14, Austria, Belgium and Norway 13, Finland and Russia 12 and the United Arab Emirates 11. Incidentally, Spain and the UK are not so holiday-minded, with only eight. 

Too many holidays

The popular perception may be that public servants in Sri Lanka are holiday-deprived, but these figures reveal a different story. With the Sundays and Saturdays added to public holidays, our public officers will generally have around 125 days holidays per year. In simple terms, even if they do not make use of their leave facilities, they will work only seven months plus a week only per year. 
Sri Lanka, being a culturally diverse and fervent society, celebrates various holidays and festivals. It is quite admirable. Yet, it doesn’t mean that we need to hold that world record. We could do without it from a national development perspective. 

Pros and cons 

Holidays which are strongly linked to the economic concept of leisure have varied economic effects. On the one hand through increasing leisure time they may increase the happiness of individuals. An OECD Report in 2009 found that “average country levels of life satisfaction are reasonably positively correlated to leisure time.” The same report also found a positive correlation between mandatory holidays and leisure time. It further goes on to state that “leisure possesses the characteristics of a normal good: more is demanded as incomes rise.”
The provision of mandatory public holidays enables people to spend time with family and also interact with others. Additionally, holidays enable the celebration of religious, cultural and other social identities. It reinforces in everybody’s mind the fact that it’s the fundamental duty of all Sri Lankan citizens to value and preserve the rich heritage of Sr Lanka’s composite culture.


However, the current system of public holidays is been criticised on several grounds due to its adverse effects. Too many holidays have a negative effect on output. Excessive public holidays hurt the economy and the central financial system. When these holidays exceed the ‘reasonable limit,’ the country’s productivity is likely to be adversely compromised. It is also not often understood that intermittent holidays can cause damage to the efforts designed to make the country’s financial and capital markets catch up with global trends. 
Many professionals have suggested reforms to prevent long shutdowns of the government machinery. But, in Sri Lanka, certain things never seem to change. It appears nobody has the guts to take on unionized bureaucracy. Status quo is the preferred option.


One good suggestion is adjusting the number of holidays according to the profession, industry or trade. Presently, Sri Lanka is following the ‘one-size fits all’ system. If you take public sector, different ministries and departments have different work-loads which peak and trough at different times in the year. The recommended system can organise  holidays to be tailored to those schedules. The inference of this suggestion is that the distribution of holidays should also be tailored to the individual work-loads of different entities rather than historical cultural calendar. 
Another recommendation is the introduction of an entirely flexible system allowing each individual employee to choose the quantity and distribution of holidays subject to the overall organisation efficiency.


"In the Asia/Pacific region, the Philippines follows with 18 and then there are China, Hong Kong with 17 holidays each. Thailand receives 16, Malaysia and Vietnam 15, Indonesia 14, Taiwan and South Korea 13, Singapore 11 and Australia and New Zealand10"


Also, when public holidays are given to government and Bank employees, the effects of them extend to private firms and organizations who are dependent on government and Bank services. For example, opening of an urgent Letter of Credit (LC), or clearing an important cargo. It carries a serious negative effect on economy. Taking this situation into consideration, China recently began rethinking of giving week-long holidays called ‘golden weeks’ in favour of more evenly distributed public holidays.
We can take a lesson from Cambodia. For a start we can amputate say, six or eight, public holidays from our holiday-calendar and maybe, replacing them with a consummate rise in annual leave days. Then the workers would be, at a minimum, no worse off than they are currently – hopefully placating the unions. 
We can also devise a system where if employees will be willing to work on holidays, they could be compensated either monetarily or by other incentives. Initially, it might be just provision of skeleton services on holidays. As months go by, the service will improve for better.


It is time to rethink on this wasteful closure of the governmental system that denies services not only to the private sector but to the common citizens.  For example, why should the whole Government operations close down for Islamic and Hindu festivals, when approximately 70% of the population are Buddhists? The multi-religious and multicultural character of Sri Lanka leads to the incorporation of holidays of different socio-cultural groups into public holiday lists whose benefits to people outside the group is questionable
Or, why should courts have long holidays in addition to these standard holidays when thousands of cases are pending disposal? Should we need to declare public holidays for all Poya days or the most important ones? These and others are the questions we need to ask ourselves and find answers. 
However, Sri Lankans as a nation love holidays. They say secularism in Sri Lanka is under threat, but not in respect of religious holidays. This writer has never heard people complain about holidays for the festivals of their co-religionists. In addition, an occasional bonanza comes in the shape of holidays to mourn the deaths of VIPs, local religious festivals, forced closures during strikes, etc. At the same time, liquor sales shoot up on the eve of holidays.

Holiday Policy

It needs to be realized that the working force is responsible for shaping the country’s destiny although the choice between comfort and hard work is really a tough job. In this age of IT revolution, keeping the offices closed for such a large number of days is untenable, unjustified.
This writer is not advocating that people should be denied holidays to celebrate festivals or religious observances. He does not want to enter into a statistical debate about the number of holidays. But when we envisage a greater role for the government in social and economic development of the nation, the services of the government should be available in an uninterrupted manner as much as possible. When reforms are introduced there will be practical difficulties in the beginning as is the case with any reform, yet such issues can be surmounted over a period of time.

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