Plus - Letters to the editor

Retain the best workers for the good of the country

There is a shortage of blue-collar workers in our business establishments, factories and estate companies. Labour from overseas can be found in many of our factories, construction sites and even hotels.

A couple of years ago, my furniture factory employed 105 persons. However, after the commissioning of the MDF factory (a big political blunder, still worth correcting) at Horana, all the rubber-wood based industries shrank or disappeared. We have hardly any rubber wood to add value and export as furniture. Some of us, however, treated these two threats as a kind of a blessing in disguise. We eliminated unproductive items and concentrated on increasing labour productivity.

Fortunately, such concerted efforts resulted in our becoming more profitable and retaining a happy workforce. But, considering the vast potential for our products in the Indian market, the principal obstacle in increasing production is the lack of workers. The common problem of “unemployability” seems to block goals set by the industry as well as the country.

Before attempting to propose remedies, we should identify and analyse the possible causes of this problem. I will start by accepting a part of the blame myself. Why can’t we attract and retain workers by paying them their market value? Let me not answer that question simply or directly. We are now identifying a certain target market sector. That is broadly the “employable workforce” -- males and females of sound physical and moral condition in the 17-to-55-year age group. They are in demand and we all compete to attract them. Where are they now?

Employment agencies are numerous and brokers are looking for potential workers. The average net salary package offered is about Rs. 25,000 a month with food and accommodation. The picture is not so rosy when the risks are evaluated: What kind of employer, what kind of work, how many hours of work per day, how many off-days per month and how many other imponderables may come up? Most Sri Lankans working in the Middle East work over 14 hours a day, six days a week. Around two million highly productive Sri Lankans are working overseas. Although expatriate remittances amount to around US$4 billion annually, does the state benefit directly? If half of them stayed in the country, they would contribute US$ 18.75 billion to the GDP.

There is a general preference among Sri Lankans for government jobs. Not many state agencies have quantified the workload expected from an employee. Under such circumstances, it is not easy to evaluate labour productivity. If qualitative and quantitative parameters can be established, the government can look for schemes to reduce the workforce and pay the remaining employees a bigger salary. If we accept the fact that there is an excess of employees in state agencies, this is another area from which the private sector can attract employees. Senior officers in the state sector admit that it is the formal and informal private sector that contributes to their salaries and perks. It is, therefore, important to maintain a balance in the employee numbers in the two sectors.

Migrant workers are generally prepared to work long hours. The cost of food and lodging must be built into the salary. Based on what we pay a worker for 45 hours of work a week, the amount to be paid to someone working 12-14 hours per day and for six days a week would be sufficient to sustain a group of immigrant workers. This is food for thought to the government to consider legalising this scheme. This will also create a precedent that workers are paid more and even those working abroad may consider coming back.

There are a few other factors that need to be taken into account: In the wood trade it is apparent that male dominance is a serious obstacle to a smooth workflow. Our company used to depend heavily on men to do the saw milling, chemical impregnation, kiln drying, wood processing, furniture assembly and finishing. But things have changed. Now, more than 75 per cent of the workforce is female, with no problems.

It is unfortunate that so many of our youth engage in casual jobs such as selling gram, lottery tickets, king coconuts, fruits, vegetables, etc. This is a common feature in underdeveloped Asian countries. These are lazy people who do not want to exert themselves too much to earn a day’s wage.

Also, there are many who do not want to work because their spouses send money from abroad. This situation has led to social problems.

Lakshman Wanniatchi, Dehiwela

Our precious cultural institutions deserve better

The Urban Development Authority’s initiatives to beautify the city are greatly appreciated. Colombo was badly in need of a facelift. As part of the beautifying process, the boundary walls of the National Library and the National Archives along Independence Avenue have been pulled down. These institutions house priceless collections of books, historical documents, microfilm, newspaper collections and digital materials. They are custodians of part of the national heritage and require protection and sensitive treatment.

The National Archives have a long history and a large collection of priceless materials. The National Library is of more recent origin but houses ola leaves, rare books, manuscripts, periodicals, digital materials, and so on.

The front boundary walls of both institutions, as well as the National Library bookshop and the dividing wall between the two properties have all been removed. We cannot see the logic of these actions.

A temporary wall demarcating the boundaries of the two institutions has been put up, and it is more unsightly than the previous demarcation.

The National Library was planned by a world-renowned British architect, under the auspices of UNESCO. The moat/pond surrounding the building was a part of the original design. The UDA has filled the moat with all the debris from the removal of the boundary and dividing walls. The resulting dust will have a negative impact on the conservation and preservation of the historical material deposited in both institutions.

For the past two years, the Education Ministry has failed to appoint a board of management for the National Library and Documentation Services Board (NLDSB) which in turn runs the National Library. As a result, the NLDSB and the National Library operate without a chairman, a board of management and a director general.

We urge the authorities to set aside some time when they visit other capital cities of the world to visit the National Libraries and National Archives of those countries and see how these institutions are supported and respected as leading cultural centres in their respective countries.

Upali Amarasiri, President, Sri Lanka Library Association

War victims are the state’s responsibility

The media recently reported that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has asked why the Tamil Diaspora has not come forward to help the “suffering” Tamils of the North and East. This comment was made at the opening of the Kokavil communications tower.

Is it not the duty of the government in place to look after its citizens who are victims of natural and man-made disasters? Why is this responsibility being shifted to other Sri Lankans? When those in power are living in luxury, should they ask other Sri Lankans to help their fellow citizens by sacrificing their personal wealth?

It looks like the government expects everyone to make personal sacrifices, and this may include other governments, NGOs, religious groups, foreign philanthropists, etc. All this is while the government washes its hands off this huge responsibility.

Gerard Abeysekera, Via e -mail

Public servants should wear their official IDs

It is reprehensible that in certain government departments the employees, who are there to assist visitors, do not wear their official identity cards.

All public servants who deal with the public should be required to display on their dress their official identity cards. The card should be worn at all times, during working hours, whether the public servant is in the office or outside.

Identity cards should be certified by the department head. Each card should also have a name and number, in case a visitor wants to make a complaint about the service.

Enforcing the wearing of IDs will go far to reduce fraud, scams, bribery, corruption, and other scourges in this country.

D. Kuruneru, Moratuwa

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