Sri Lankan women increasingly quit the workforce

More women are turning their backs on inequality and discrimination
Sri Lankan women increasingly quit the workforce

Women work as janitors for a private company hired by the Colombo Municipal Council. They complain they are paid less than their male counterparts. (ucanews.com photo)

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka
August 6, 2018
More Sri Lankan women are quitting their jobs due to low wages and other factors, which is adversely affecting the jobless rate and hindering the nation's economic development, according to a "development update" by the World Bank released in June.

Women are often paid less than their male peers, face more discrimination at work, struggle to find schooling for their children, and are more reluctant to migrate to other parts of the country in search of a job.

Further highlighting how this tranche of the labor pool is being under-utilized at the expense of the economy, the report cites how women are legally required to retire early while many choose to work overseas, where they can earn more money.

"I'm paid less than my male counterparts," said one worker interviewed by ucanews.com who gave her name as Leelawathi.

She said she has worked for 20 years on a contract basis for a private company that offers janitor services but has never received any health insurance or other welfare benefits. She usually puts in 12 hours a day and can earn overtime by sorting through the garbage after her regular shift is done but her company won't provide safety equipment like gloves, she added. 

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In the event she gets sick, her employer tells her to go to a nearby hospital to get medicine. If she is too ill to work, her pay will be deducted for every day she doesn't show up, she said.

Arumugam, who works for the same private company, said they can't even resort to trade union action to protect their rights as they would be immediately replaced if they "tried to stir up trouble." Their basic salary is just 10,000 rupees a month, the employee said. They are supposed to receive a monthly allowance of 2,500 rupees but they never do.

Sri Lanka's labor market is characterized by a high rate of informality, the absence of many working-age women, and high unemployment rates among young people and those with advanced degrees, the report shows.

Moreover, women in the agricultural sector, who mostly work on an informal or part-time basis, show low levels of productivity. 

Garment factory workers at the Sri Lanka Free Trade Zone rally for their rights in this file photo. (ucanews.com photo)

 

But these problems could all be unlocked with the right policy measures, the report states, adding that more job opportunities need to be created for both women and young people.

The service sector makes up a large share of the job market in the country, as does the public sector including state-owned enterprises.

The World Bank urged the government to fix problems on both sides of the job market, meaning more jobs, a greater supply of labor and fewer skill-based mismatches in terms of having the wrong people in the wrong jobs.

It said structural reform is imperative to increasing the nation's competitiveness.

The nation's unemployment rate is estimated to stand at 4.4 percent this year but it is skewed in some areas to make it among the worst in the region.

For example, the jobless rate among people with advanced-level qualifications is as high as 8.3 percent, the report states. 

Sister Noel Christine Fernando, a women's rights activist, said women who work in the nation's free trade zones, where many factories are located, are predominantly migrant workers who earn US$56 a month (9,000 rupees).

"This is an unjust society," she said, adding some moonlight as prostitutes to make ends meet and feed their families back home.

"There are many cases where women have a university degree but are still refused jobs due to their rural background," she told ucanews.com.

The Catholic nun said women often work harder than men despite earning a lower salary doing the same job.

Meanwhile, trade union leader Anton Marcus told ucanews.com that fewer women are willing to work in factories these days because it often means migrating to another part of the country and leaving their kids behind.

He said that the government has been unable to address problems like a lack of decent schooling for children who have to relocate with their mothers.

As the women are uprooted to live in places where they lack residential rights, their kids are not absorbed into the academic system, critics complain.

Migrant female workers also lack access to state welfare and are not covered by Sri Lanka's labor laws, posing a risk to their health and the health of their children, activists say.

Citing a recent incident, Marcus recalled how a major supplier of garments claimed to be producing environmentally friendly clothes and boasted how workers would be provided with adjustable chairs to safeguard their health.

But this later proved untrue. Staffers were asked to stand all day on factory floor production lines. Many found this unbearable and quit, he said.

As more women leave the workforce, Sri Lanka is compensating by bringing in more workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, especially to feed the local steel industry, the trade unionist said.

Leaders of Sri Lanka's apparel industry are also calling on the government to bring more women in from abroad to make up for labor shortfalls.

Marcus said the state may well acquiesce and loosen its policies on foreign workers if the situation becomes "even more aggravated."

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