Fish on a bicycle, Jaffna (Courtesy migrationology.com)
The welfare of working people is sine qua non for economic and social development of societies. More than quarter century of civil war in Jaffna (1983-2009) has destroyed several institutions that are life blood of economic and social well-being of democratic societies. The vanguard institutions of labour such as collective bargaining through labour associations/unions, labour departments (government regulator) and indeed labour standards have been dissipated in the name of ‘national liberation’ and ‘national security’. These institutions have been subsumed into the overarching imperatives of Tamil nationalism, Tamil national liberation struggle and the national security of the state.
The objectives of this study are to understand and document the legal, livelihood and social conditions of the working people in the Jaffna town six years after the military conclusion of the civil war in May 2009 and sensitize the governments (national, provincial and local), private businesses, non-governmental organisations, international development partners and other stakeholders on the protection and promotion of the welfare of the working people in post-civil war economic and social development in Jaffna and beyond.
A questionnaire-based survey of a sample of working people in different occupations, businesses and households was undertaken during the middle of 2015 in the Jaffna town and the suburbs. A total of 258 workers were interviewed through a questionnaire by labour union personnel.
The designing of the survey instrument (questionnaire), selection of the sample and the enumeration of the survey were undertaken by the labour union personnel themselves. The role of the Point Pedro Institute of Development (PPID) has been the guidance and contribution to the processing and tabulation of the survey data and most importantly writing up this report.
Results of a survey
The results of the survey reveal that most employers in the Jaffna town are flouting the statutory labour laws in the country in terms of minimum wage, maximum number of hours of work per day, maximum number of days of work per week, payment of overtime pay, payment of EPF/ETF, annual leave entitlement, employment contract, etc.
Moreover, the survey reveals that a vast majority of the employees are unaware of their statutory rights to minimum wage, maximum number of hours of work per day, maximum number of days of work per week, overtime and EPF/ETF payments, annual leave entitlement, employment contract, etc.
In all of the foregoing women are worse off than men. The labour force participation rates among women in the districts of Eastern and Northern Provinces are significantly lower than in the 17 districts out of the Eastern and Northern Provinces. According to the Labour Force Survey Annual Report 2014, while the all-island labour force participation rate of women was 35 percent, the labour force participation rate of women in the Jaffna District was 25 percent and just 15 percent in the Mannar District (the lowest in the country).
Moreover, whereas the women’s labour force participation rates in all the districts out of the Eastern and Northern Provinces were above 30 percent, it was significantly lower than 30 percent in the districts of the east and north (barring Vavuniya District where it was 32 percent). Thus, the very low labour force participation by women in the East and North could be a result of appalling conditions of employment as well, among other factors.
The bulk of the workers are in low-paid jobs with minimal labour standards, social protection and security of tenure, which are not conducive to ‘decent work’ and sustainable livelihoods. It is high time that the local and provincial governments and the national government and private businesses take urgent action to remedy the situation. The non-governmental organisations and the international development partners could play a pivotal role in sensitizing the governments and the businesses to comply with the national and international labour standards and empowering the workers to demand their due human entitlements.
It is true that businesses also have incurred enormous financial and material losses during the course of the civil war which have not been compensated by the state to date. However, such losses cannot be an excuse to exploit their employees; thus, one injustice cannot justify another.
At the validation workshop held in Jaffna on December 5, 2015, the Labour Commissioner for the Northern Province highlighted the fact that many employees are also averse to their employers having a register to mark attendance because the lack of attendance register could mask unauthorized and unofficial absenteeism of the employees. Furthermore, many employees in the Northern Province are also averse to paying the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF)/Employees’ Trust Fund (ETF) contributions in order to boost their take-home pay and therefore do not mind if their employers do not pay them the EPF/ETF.
According to the Regional Head of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka in Jaffna, there has also been a growing practice of employees complaining about their employers to the Human Rights Commission rather than to the Labour Department.
The four pillars of ‘Decent Work’ enunciated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, including Sri Lanka, are:
(1) Employment creation and enterprise development.
(2) Social protection.
(3) Labour standards and rights at work.
(4) Labour governance and social dialogue.
It is argued that the foregoing pillars of Decent Work are necessary to promote inclusive growth, poverty alleviation, shared prosperity and basic minimum standards of living for human beings.
In the past decade or more many countries (both developed and developing countries) have experienced economic growth with very little employment creation (if at all), which has been popularly referred to as “jobless growth”. Therefore, employment creation has been emphasised more than economic growth in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of the late-1990s and the global economic crisis of 2008.
It has also been emphasised that governments should provide social protection/security to the labour at all times, especially during the times of economic crisis. That is, economic and livelihood vulnerabilities of the bottom of the pyramid labouring class have to be cushioned by both the employers and the governments.
Thirdly, labour rights and standards have to be upheld by both the employers and governments at all times, which are inalienable rights of the workers. The maintenance of these rights is sine qua non to access international markets by exporters and gain preferential access to markets. The consumers in developed countries are growingly concerned by environmental and labour standards in production processes throughout the world and therefore it makes smart business sense to adhere to core human values.
Fourthly, employers are mandatorily expected to allow employees to form collective bargaining institutions in work places. In addition, governments should promote regular social dialogue between employers and employees in order to maintain social harmony and peaceful coexistence between businesses and their employees.
The prime minister of Sri Lanka in his maiden economic policy statement of the new government presented to parliament on November 5, 2015 claimed that one million new jobs “with good wages” will be created in the next five years of this government. This is the first time in Sri Lanka any politician has tied employment generation to decent wages.
However, the commitment to create one-million jobs with decent wages could be a herculean task for the new government, given the fact that higher paid jobs are associated with higher skills and productivity of the labour which are sourly lacking among the Sri Lankan labour. The relatively better educated, skilled and higher productive labourers of Sri Lanka tend to migrate overseas for employment and/or for good. In order to generate higher paid jobs, the government should significantly improve the educational and skills standards in Sri Lanka along with inculcation of work ethic among the population.
Thus, the Decent Work is associated with internationally competitive quality of education and skills training which is lacking in Sri Lanka. Generally, low-paid jobs in Sri Lanka, including in the public services, is mainly due to lack of quality education, skills training and sound work ethic. Although, in principle, Decent Work is a worthy policy goal to pursue, in practice it requires a sound quality education and skills training system, which is internationally competitive, as a prerequisite.
1. The national government of Sri Lanka and the provincial government of the Northern Province should jointly and concurrently focus on improving and upgrading the quality of school, vocational and university education systems in order to make the Sri Lankan labour optimally productive and internationally competitive and thereby make them earn decent wages and gain decent work.
2. The national and provincial governments should provide incentives for women to gain paid employment in order to increase the labour force participation rate of women. Appropriate financial compensation for the care work (child care and elderly care) undertaken within households, introduction of paternity leave for fathers, child care and crèche facilities at work places and automation of household chores that would release time to undertake paid employment outside the home should be implemented as priorities.
3. Concrete steps should be taken to strengthen the labour inspection mechanism in the Northern Province. This shall include the increasing of the inspectorate cadre and strengthening required infrastructure. Sufficient travelling allowance or reliable modes of transportation should be provided to them. The inadequacy of the travel allowance to undertake field visits is a key issue that the Labour Officers’ Union has raised on many occasions and this has also figured in the supervisory body reports of the ILO (Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations) with regard to giving effect to ILO Convention No.81 on Labour Inspection.
4. The alarming findings of the survey that reveal the nonexistence of letters of appointment among most workers, discrepancies in working hours, leave, etc. could be attributed to the absence of a systematic and routine inspection of workplaces and a mechanism to follow up on instances that require intervention. Therefore, the inspections should be geared to focus special emphasis on key areas such as verifying employment contracts, payment of the EPF, ETF, gratuity, working hours, overtime, entitlement of leave, etc., which form part of basic minimum standards of employment.
5. The physical presence of the labour administration should be expanded, i.e. setting up district labour offices as visible in other parts of the country.
6. A scientific labour market expectation survey should be conducted to gauge the expectations of the labour force. The absence of such specific information has often led to investors complaining about issues relating to skills, attitudes of workers, etc. This mismatch also results in industrial relations conflicts after setting up businesses. This can also give rise to situations of abuse and exploitation. The labour market expectation-related information will enable investors to decide on the type of enterprises that they can set up based on the dynamics of the labour force in the region.
7. The post-civil war atmosphere has made the region devoid of fundamental workplace freedoms guaranteed by core conventions of the ILO i.e. freedom of association, collective bargaining, etc. The absence of freedom of association has left workers scattered and isolated, making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Workers are also not able to present their concerns and bargain on behalf of their interest in an organised and collective manner due to this situation. Therefore, fostering such freedoms is an essential means of democratic and organised expression and is directly linked to social justice. The post-civil war reconciliation agenda should also incorporate the aspect of social justice at workplace. The post-civil war atmosphere has made the labour force vulnerable to exploitation because of high unemployment rates noted above and continued fear psychosis instilled by excessive presence of the armed forces. Therefore, it is important a fair playing field is set in the field of employment in order to ensure basic freedoms guaranteed by the ILO are exercisable.
8. Protection against unfair dismissals and ensuring the payment of gratuity for workers in workplaces employing less than 15 employees is redressed through Labour Tribunals. There are 37 Labour Tribunals listed in the Justice Ministry website, but none of them are located in the Northern Province. A vast majority of workplaces in the region employ less than 15 workers. As such the existence of a Labour Tribunal is essential to claim gratuity, in instances where it is denied by the employer or to challenge unfair terminations. Given the vast geographical landscape of the province, setting up the adequate number of tribunals in locations where workers can have access easily is an essential requirement to ensure justice and fair play in industrial relations.
9. Requirements of decent work should take centre focus in the region’s world of work and the national government should be urged to incorporate concerns of the northern workers in the national Decent Work Country Programme prepared by tripartite stakeholders of the process of employment.
10. Ensuring the benefits of economic growth trickle down to the inhabitants in a democratic society depends considerably on the existence of universally recognised conditions of decent work. This has also been recognised as one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in September 2015. This serves an important purpose in the post-civil war economic recovery of the region. Conditions unique to the region could be identified and addressed effectively by the Provincial Council than the national government. Employment is a subject listed in the Concurrent List under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The Northern Provincial Council should seriously explore as to how it could carve a niche to address issues of economic and social justice of its people, as it is better geared and positioned to the task than the national government. The council should also intervene to have its input into the drawing up of the National Decent Work Country Programme so that the concerns of its inhabitants are better represented. This is also equally vital given the fact that the Jaffna District and Northern Province recording one of the highest income inequality of all districts and provinces in the country according to the latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey (2012-2013) of the Census and Statistics Department. These facts also go to show that justice at work place is an issue that should draw the urgent attention of national and provincial lawmakers of the province. Therefore, this aspect should also form
part of the overall reconciliation focus of the North.
11. Fiscal policy (especially tax policy) is a major policy instrument through which economic growth could be ensured to trickle down to the lower strata of the working population and society. Over 80 percent of the government revenue accrues from consumption (indirect) taxes and less than 20 percent accrues from income (direct) taxes. This in itself is regressive because, while consumption taxes are equal to all income groups, income taxes are higher to higher income groups and lower (or zero) to lower income groups. The current government’s avowed policy is to raise the direct income taxes to 40 percent and lower the indirect consumption taxes to 60 percent of the total government revenue, which is commendable if successfully implemented and realised.
12. Awareness raising on labour rights need to be accelerated by the Labour Department and worker stakeholders. The absence of worker-friendly educational materials in Tamil is a serious drawback. Steps should be taken to develop such tools.
(This article has been written by the Point Pedro Institute of Development, Point Pedro, Northern Province, Sri Lanka in association with the Solidarity Centre, Colombo to contribute to the 105th Annual Conference of the International Labour Organisation to be held in Geneva in June 2016. Any queries on this survey could be obtained from email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org)