Sri Lankans’ livelihood: Past, present and future of work

Untitled-1logoThursday, 1 June 2017
The purpose of this article is to examine and understand as to how the Sri Lankans earned their living and dealt with their career aspirations over the seven decades since independence, and to assess the future of work in the global and local context.

(a) Period since Independence to early 1990s in a nutshell

A few decades ago, some of us, who are now in the middle age or older, had the opportunity of getting domestic help from some rural folks. They were willing to find their living by helping the local elite and urban families. Mostly, they were 10 or 12 years of age – some could have been even younger. One would think that this was an extension of the feudal society we used to have long ago!

Some of these employers were kind enough to provide the opportunity for those aids for schooling – at least to gain basic literacy and numeracy skills which they would have never received otherwise. These people were just engaged in household chores and visited their own families only a couple of times a year. Their masters provided them with food, clothing and some money – a meagre wage, to be sent home.

The other poor people, who did not have any qualification, earned their living by labouring or farming. Some worked at places such as harbours, estates and factories having come from all over the country.

The urban people from the middle class onwards were engaged in their own enterprises or paid public or private sector jobs. The ones, who had solid university degrees and/or professional qualifications, took executive appointments, but the unskilled graduates had serious issues.

Most professionals migrated from far away districts and stayed over in cities. Almost all wanted a job for life. One of the main requirements for the middle class was the ability to send their kids to popular public schools to enable them to secure decent employment in the future as the school attended played an important role!

The government servants always had transferable jobs and they were supposed to work any part of the island depending on the need of the state. However, most government departments were overstaffed due to the authority the politicians had to bring in their cronies and henchmen. But, we have always had shortages in the categories such as medical doctors. In general, the government sector never had a dynamic output in serving the people!

In this period, some local entrepreneurs took off with little self-employment/business projects. Quite a few of those ventures saw a lot of success with time; they grew, expanded, diversified, some became corporates and provided employment opportunities for other fellow citizens too.

However, severe unemployment situations have prevailed in the country on and off due to many socio-economic reasons.

This was pretty much the story in a nutshell up to the late 70s or so until the free market policies were introduced in Sri Lanka and the private sector became the engine of growth.

In the late 70s, with the oil boom in the Middle East, our government found an avenue to export labour/expertise there (not to mention the social issues this brought back!). The demand for our workers from countries such as South Korea began to increase from the late 90s – some secured employment in European countries such as Italy even earlier than that, but mostly through illegal measures, at the initial stages. Now, overseas working opportunities have grown leaps and bounds and this particular source became our chief foreign exchange earner many years ago (about $ 7 billion a year from about 1.7 million people now!).

Meanwhile, the apparel industry together with the other non-traditional export businesses changed the landscape of the labour market to a certain extent within the country, from the early 80s. Many people, especially women, who had lower levels of education, got the opportunity to secure employment within commuting distance from their homes as industries moved into villages (the 200 garment factory programme etc.).

In terms of assistance to the poor, the government introduced ‘Janasaviya’ in the 80s (later renamed as ‘Samurdi’ – a programme to provide food stamps and some financial assistance to the unemployed. The ‘Janasaviya’ replaced the ‘Salaka’ system through which people received free rice and other provisions on subsidised prices) and the ‘Mahapola’ (a programme to provide financial assistance to the needy and bright university students). The ‘Gam Udawa’ programme provided basic housing to the needy. This is the welfare state in operation even now.

The brain drain has continued for a number of decades; our talented and creative professionals migrated to affluent geographic locations for furtherance of their careers and to secure the future of their next generations. The LTTE terrorist activities, spells of civil unrest, lack of progress and absence of peace were some of the principal contributory factors for people to leave the island.

(b) The last 25 years

Sri Lankans adapted to the use of computers for both business and personal purposes by the early 90s. Many of our young people, who saw technological advancement in the world, thought about acquiring the necessary skills to work on/with computers in order to keep up with the global trend, this involved acquiring expertise in the space of both hardware and software.

The writer believes that Colombo and Moratuwa universities were well-geared to produce the IT graduates from the mid-80s. Also there were other technical institutions to produce IT professionals. This was a blessing and our intelligent youngsters had the aptitude and capability to help the country’s transition into a high-tech era. Our engineering talent produced by Moratuwa, Peradeniya and other local universities was an asset to take the 21st century technological aspirations forward in the country.

In particular, the University of Moratuwa was abreast with the global technological advancement. Gihan Dias was instrumental in setting up the academic Internet and email systems for the use of university staff and students by 1990.

Initially, the computers were limited to the data processing divisions of the companies and government departments, but, as the systems were centralised, the other staff also required them on a day-to-day basis to make the systems more efficient. This forced many professionals and supportive staff to be computer literate.

By the year 2000 or so, the country saw many of its public and private sector organisations use the internet and email in their daily affairs. Sri Lankans got connected with the world better and became part of the global society swiftly. The world became a smaller place in terms of connectivity and utility, this provided an impetus for a rapid advancement on many fronts.

Also, we learnt about the global developments, standards and adaption of them was much faster than ever before. Our societal dynamics have changed big time in the last 15-20 years owing to the internet.

With these developments, Sri Lanka embarked on many initiatives to improve the lives of people. They included; setting up minimum standards in many important areas, bringing equality, changing certain legal frameworks and parameters, making democracy work better, human/fundamental rights and the like. However, much more still need to be done, and there is no room for complacency!

The year 2009 marked an important milestone in the history of our country. The civil war that was fought with the LTTE for 26 years was brought to a complete halt. Thanks to all the people who were responsible. However, the authorities didn’t have a workable/acceptable plan for all to rebuild the nation and re-establish peace in the aftermath of the war.

The higher education opportunities improved both in public and private universities. The number of state universities was increased; many foreign universities are now offering numerous courses in Sri Lanka. The number of people who take up postgraduate degrees have increased, compared with the situation that prevailed 20 years ago. The prevailing severe local/global competition and the rapid changes the world undergoes are main reasons for this – learning and skill update is a must to keep oneself current these days. People (especially the millennials) change jobs/careers more often – once every 2-3 years at least, on average.

Alongside all these development work, the level of state corruption and waste was rampant from the early 70s! The government cadres have been increased without a proper assessment or evaluation. The benefits of the good endeavours did not reach the poor! Therefore, we are yet to see a significant development in living standards of our grassroots level population although the middle class has grown. Perhaps, the poor has managed to send their kids to public universities etc. more than before, but they are yet to see their ends meet!

(c) Present and immediate future

Today, Sri Lanka is in a crossroads and its challenges are numerous. The present Government has spent about two-and-a-half years already to put the house in order, but not finished yet! A lot of ground work has been done despite acts of sabotage by the political opponents. Sri Lanka has now established cordial relationships with many important countries, economic blocs and the international institutions such as the UN and World Bank.

As a result, we got the fish export ban lifted and GSP+ reinstated recently. These will help increase the employment opportunities as the export volumes rise. However, we are yet to attract large FDIs. This is the most expensive ingredient that is in short supply right now for the creation of modern jobs for our talent.

We already have well-equipped, second to none professionals and private sector firms in technology and other fields that are capable of driving the country forward.

However, Sri Lanka is faced with a shortage of labour at skilled and semi-skilled levels. There are so many vacancies in the construction, hospitality and tourism sectors that are booming at present. A lot of young energetic people are required. Many of our young people are under-employed as three-wheeler drivers. Of the one million+ three-wheeler drivers’ population, 68% is under 38 years of age! They do require a reorientation and training to become productive people to the economy. The recent law that made the minimum age 35 to obtain three-wheeler driver’s licence is a good move to curb this situation.

The writer believes that the country should get to the next cycle of development in terms of work and jobs. For instance, in the apparel industry, we are no more a pure ‘cutting and stitching’ location. Some Sri Lankan top-end apparel companies have become high-end research, development and designing outfits to the world.

Also, the old mind-set is disappearing to a large extent. Recently, the writer met a CIMA qualified young executive working as an Uber driver to make some extra cash in his free time. People do appreciate flexibility and freedom.

(d) The future of work

The world is rapidly changing and reshaping, literally, on a daily basis, mainly due to technological advancements. The radical forces involved are changing the world of work big time. The disruptive innovation processes are creating new technology, new industries, new products, new processes and new needs and wants, making the old ones obsolete more often than not. No turning back, this could only get more intense and complex as the time goes by.

This keeps the job roles, titles and the required skill-sets changing constantly. The safe solution is lifelong learning and training if one wanted to be on top of the developments! Many people would move between careers/jobs more than ever before.

The writer has known only a very few who changed careers successfully in the past. One person, whom he was privileged to know, was Godfrey Vaz. He commenced his working life as a mathematics teacher in Sri Lanka, turned chemist, moved to the USA and became a physician! Also, the writer has learnt from his surgeon friend about a British mechanical engineer turned surgeon (This genius has examined writer’s friend in his final master of surgery examination!). It appears that the new world order is dictating all of us to be Vazs, if possible, isn’t it?

Perhaps, the young generation, who are now in the late teens or younger, would not know what they are walking into after university/college education in five years and beyond. It could be ‘survival of the fittest’ much more than today! Some may even run the risk of being out-dated in terms of skills within no time.

Bill Gates recently said: “If I were starting out today and looking for the same kind of opportunity to make a big impact in the world, I would consider three fields. One is artificial intelligence (AI). We have only begun to tap into all the ways it will make people’s lives more productive and creative. The second is energy, because making it clean, affordable, and reliable will be essential for fighting poverty and climate change. The third is the biosciences, which are ripe with opportunities to help people live longer, healthier lives.” However, this is in terms of serving the others if that was what you wanted!

So the life and work dynamics have changed in the last two decades and will continue to change eternally. Two-thirds of the US corporates complain that employees are overwhelmed and stressed out – this situation is escalating. Many of us are stuck in communications tools such as Twitter, Whatsapp and Skype and spend a huge amount of time with them on a daily basis knowingly or unknowingly.

Globally, by and large, it appears there are two main schools of thought about the future of work beyond 2030 as per the gurus. In a nutshell, they are as follows;

(1) Most of the manual work would be taken over by robots and labour intensive jobs would further disappear in manufacturing and other industries. Some Scandinavian countries such as Finland are already considering some balancing out acts. Simply put, the solution seems to be the ‘robot tax’ on the companies in order to pay the ‘universal basic income’ to the people who would be out of employment due to automation.

(2) Although the hard work would be taken over by robots, the jobs would remain with a different outlook. The opinion leaders cite the last couple of centuries in which period the world experienced a steady surge in number of jobs despite the technological advancement.

The aforesaid is the world scenario and the predictions in general. Sri Lanka cannot be a complete exception to this, but it is not a manufacturing economy (no automobile or high-tech industries that deploy robots in large scale) at present. Therefore, we should cautiously observe the future developments.

Just to put the readers into perspective, China acquired 160,000 robots last year and we hear many novel developments such as driver-less vehicles, which would snatch the real jobs from people, in theory.

Organisations would become even flatter, no going up or down in careers perhaps. There would be just teams put together for tasks more than permanent departments. Some of us might have to work on ego and attitude more than before! Augmented Intelligence (AI – formerly Artificial Intelligence) will further wipe out the repetitive human tasks. Even software engineering jobs would go away with many other jobs due to automation! Essentially, these are more repetitive mundane jobs!

Some tasks and jobs we (and the young generations) would perform in 10-15 years may be, not even known yet, but they will definitely dictate the need for rational and innovative thinking and creativity as prerequisite! Good mathematics would be a marvellous general working tool.

(e) Conclusion

We need a 180 degree shift! In preparation, we should design our future education and training policies and commence investing properly now, having these drastic global shifts in mind. The writer reckons that this is a tedious task for the authorities and professionals involved as the way we manage our affairs at the moment – petty politics must go away! Nevertheless, we would not be complete or fully geared if we did not make our nation responsible citizens, who are empathetic to each other, and not robots!

[The writer is the founder of the Skill Conference ( He is a borderless thinker and futurist. His contact email:]


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