On 1 May the world observes May Day, a day dedicated to the world’s workforces. This is a day to remember and appreciate the immense contribution of the workforce to our economic and social stability and eventually to our political stability. Also, this is a day to discuss the many issues they are facing and bring them forward.
The current economic crisis as well as a political and a social turmoil Sri Lanka is going through compelled us to look back and rethink the concept of the May Day and how we can apply its ideologies to the present situation of Sri Lanka.
To discuss this, we contacted three professionals who expressed their views on May Day relating it to the present chaos of Sri Lanka.
Joining us first is Senior Lecturer (Economics) at the Faculty of Management, UvaWellassa University, Badulla, Dr. Ravindra Deshapriya.
Securing ‘decent work’ and ‘higher standard of living’ for workers during the crisis
“Basically, decent work refers to the promotion of opportunities for people to engage in productive work which ensures the conditions of freedom, equity, security, and human dignity”, started Dr. Deshapriya.
Specifically, it is all about jobs and its job-related expectations such as balancing the work and family life, educating the children while working, gender equality, proper recognition for the work, being healthy while working, job security and mitigating the future risk, and more commonly it’s about moving from subsistence to existence.
“Hence, on top of all, decent work implies the jobs created through a country’s economic development process being of acceptable quality. The May Day (Labour Day) has been devoted to protecting and commemorating the rights of the workers and thus it is crucial to address the matter of decent work along with their living standard during this crisis situation.”
The concept of decent work involves four interrelated dimensions such as; Opportunity for Work, Rights at Work, Social Protection, and Social Dialogue,” explained Dr. Deshapriya.
– Opportunity for Work indicates the availability of jobs for all who are willing to be employed. Hence, the Government’s responsibility is to expand economic activities to create more employment opportunities for a growing workforce.
– Rights at Work is also crucial and it focuses on freedom of choosing jobs, and no discrimination in terms of gender, race, and religion while ensuring no child labour and slave labour.
– Social Protection involves different obligations and commitments to ensure health, financial, and other social related protections at work.
– Social Dialogue emphasises the ability to participate in decision making processes related to work conditions and the ability to raise a voice in terms of job-related to societal requirements. Social Dialogue is more related to Labour Day as Labour Day is all about raising voices for better working conditions and societal needs.
The current economic crisis
In addition to decent work, enhancing the standard of living of workers is vital during the current economic crisis.
“The present economic crisis in the country has been drastically affecting each and every layer of the society. However, its impact on lower-income groups such as the poor and vulnerable to poor is pathetic.”
Sri Lanka is currently experiencing an inflation rate of over 120 per cent and consequently, the prices of all essential goods and services such as fuel, gas, food and beverages, transport, medicine and construction materials have sharply increased while reducing the purchasing power of the working-class remarkably.
Not only the price hike, but most of the essential goods and services also are not sufficiently available at the market, and hence people have to waste a lot when purchasing such necessities.
He further said that under these scenarios, the majority of the working class such as the middle class, lower-middle-class, vulnerable to poor and poor people are unable to sustain their standard of living as they did previously.
“Thus, there is a higher possibility of collapsing down their living standard under current economic conditions and therefore, responsible authorities should take timely and effective policy measures to address the lowering living standards of such groups,” concluded Dr. Deshapriya.
Joining us next is Denzil Perera who is a Brand and Business Strategist/Consultant, a brand coach at SLIM, and a visiting lecturer for MBAs in both public and private universities. Perera holds an MBA (merit) from PIM, a B.Sc. in Marketing (Hons) from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing from CIM (UK).
He shared his views on the difference between the private and public sector labour forces and equal rights.
“Although May Day was chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day by the socialists and communists, over the years; the International Labour Day has become more of a political extravaganza where the political leaders of each party are staged following a May Day rally to address their followers,” explained Perera.
“The rights that were won by the employees or the workers are now celebrated under the patronage of politicians as the general public has forgotten the true meaning of commemorating the Labour Day.”
He also expressed his concern as it’s really sad how certain political parties who ruined the youth by promoting violence have hijacked the May Day celebration from the actual working force of the country.
Private sector vs public sector
“From the perspective of a professional, who has been in the private sector, I must say; the Labour Day was just another holiday for us throughout our lives as we worked hard to earn during all the other days.”
There was no need for the private sector employees to be a part of a May Day rally as everyone was getting paid for what they offer at work.
“As professionals, I must say we should have and could have fought for an efficient Government service as the services provided by the Government institutions have a considerable impact on the business activities carried out by the private sector.”
Even though the private sector is considered the backbone of the economy they still pay 70 per cent of the Government spending on salaries of the public sector. Hence, it’s obvious that the time has come for us to fight for equality as the private sector employees who work hard for nine hours a day or more.
Private sector employees have no choice but to effectively take part in the production process of the nation as their benefits and privileges are directly related to the results achieved by them in terms of sales, profits,cost reduction, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and so on. One can argue that the private sector employees are getting paid way better than the public sector which in a way is true. However, in order to achieve what they can achieve in the private sector, the amount of freedom that the employees in the private sector have to compromise is immense.
“It’s also important to know why the public sector has gone through a dip in their productivity. Aged old policies, unrealistic salaries and perks, absence of proper key performance indicators, absence of true business leaders to run organisations, absence of quality working environment are some of the key reasons as to why the public sector employees feel inferior.”
From an HR point of view, throwing peanuts would only get you monkeys and the monkeys would only follow what the others do.
This answers why the public sector employees are more concerned about their rights than their duties and why they involve in mean acts such as taking ransoms and mudslinging at employees who try to work better.
The low salary scales and perks in the public sector at times are not even sufficient for someone to meet the monthly commitments of the family. This has paved the way for them to choose two options.
a.) To be contributing the bare minimum to develop the organisation so that they match what they get vs what they give
b.) Engage themselves in various malpractices such as bribery to various other issues which would either provide an additional income or would allow them to fulfil their whims and wishes by means of directly or indirectly attacking others or purposely dragging work so that they make sure they don’t have to do much.
Whichever way is chosen, the economy and the sectors are going to suffer as the required input will not be made available for most of the organisations in the Government sector as explained above and this in return works as a vicious cycle.
“If you are expecting a peaceful retirement and a pension in a few years and you are not actively supporting any development work in your organisation, you will be held responsible one day by the next generation for holding positions and doing nothing for the country which spent on your free education.”
He further said that, in a way, it’s not fair for us to blame it on our people as our people have been living through a 30-year-long war. We as a nation have been dragged by not just the war but also by tsunami, 83 riots, 71 riots, and 88/89 up-rising of JVP.
It’s truly sad to see how the labour unions have become the henchmen of political parties and are divided into various groups. The fishermen, farmers, teachers, workers, and professionals all should work for our families and for Sri Lanka.
He said that May Day would be meaningfully celebrated on the day we increase the productivity of the nation and get a sufficient increase in our pay to meet the commitments.
Real celebration of May Day
“Let us all work towards the goal of increasing the productivity of our nation. There is no one who has fought against inefficient services provided, out-of-date rules and regulations,” Perera said.
Sri Lanka needs to rise for a better country – better nation – better tomorrow by committing ourselves to work harder as we need to go an extra mile with our efforts at this juncture as the tough times are ahead of us due to the economic blunder created in 1978 when the economy was opened to import almost everything from abroad curtailing our production of which the results have surfaced after four decades with the impact of the Easter Attack and the impact of the pandemic and the blunders made by many political parties who came to power since then.
The creators of the mess are no longer alive but generations are paying the price for the wrong decisions taken by the rulers and their advisors.
“On this May Day let’s urge all 225 who got elected by our votes to the Parliament to bring an end to the drama they have been playing and act responsibly as each and everyone in the Parliament is responsible for the mess that we are going through today.”
Women’s unpaid work should be recognised
Kaushalya Abeywickrama, a women and child rights activist, who is a journalist and a researcher on Political Communication, joined us to share her view on the impact the current economic crisis has on women. She holds two post-graduate degrees in Mass Communication, and Conflict, Peace, and Development Studies.
“By 2021, 52.1 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population is women, and the country’s economy will be dominated by women as a lower-middle-income country. On May Day, we should discuss women workers who are the only workers in the world that work for the entire day for 7 days a week.”
As she explained, women’s labour-force participation is increasing in Sri Lanka. Women’s participation in remunerated work in both the formal and informal labour markets has increased significantly and shifted over the last decade. Women’s income is becoming increasingly important to all types of households. On the other hand, women are involved in the reproductive cycle.
In many countries, women make up the majority of workers in non-standard jobs such as temporary, casual, multiple part-time contracts, and home-based employment, but they lack bargaining power due to gender inequality.
Women migrant workers, including domestic workers, contribute immensely to the country’s economy. These women workers send remittances to Sri Lanka’s economy. Remittances from migrant workers are the main source of foreign exchange earnings for Sri Lanka, accounting for 8 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2013 and providing economic development for nearly one-third of the country’s population.
“Despite the fact that the Sri Lankan economy is dominated by women labourers, pay disparities are one of the most persistent forms of gender inequality in the labour market”, said Abeywickrama.
She explained that wages for women are typically between 70 and 90 per cent of those for men and the wage disparity in Sri Lanka ranges from 30 to 36 per cent. (September 2021).
Working mothers also have no sufficient maternity leave to breastfeed their children and no proper plan for allowing them to leave in accordance with their life cycle.
“These issues must be addressed on World Labour Day, which is especially important at this time.”
There are many social and cultural factors for the gender pay gap in Sri Lanka. South Asian women participate in the labour force more as they age, which indicates that they must contribute more income as their households grow following marriage.
As we celebrate May Day we need to know that the worker has no gender distinction. The prosperity of a country depends on the hands of the worker. In Sri Lanka, the time has come to acknowledge, appreciate and raise the working woman towards prosperity; the housewife as well as the working woman.
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy