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Sri Lanka Table of Contents

Sri Lanka

Working Conditions

Working conditions varied greatly according to the type and size of employment activity in the 1980s. The Factories Ordinance of 1942 established guidelines for industrial safety and sanitation and made each factory liable to government inspection. Because this ordinance and other similar legislation has not been enforced consistently, workers frequently protested their working conditions. In the 1980s, strikes and boycotts often took place because of inadequate meals at factories that had their own lunchrooms or because of the lack of other facilities.

The Factories Ordinance prohibited work for women between 9:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M. In the years after independence, a further series of laws restricted the employment of women and children to designated time periods and places. A 1957 law, for example limited working time for women to nine hours. Other laws prohibited women and children from working time underground, in mines, for example.

Unemployment has been a problem since the 1960s, especially for young people, but the statistics available in 1988 were not very reliable. Observers estimated that unemployment increased from around 12 percent of the labor force in the early 1960s to 24 percent in the mid-1970s. Unemployment fell back to around 12 percent in the first few years after the economic liberalization that began in November 1977, but it was again on the increase in the mid-1980s. According to official data, in 1987 the labor force consisted of around 6.2 million persons, of whom 5.4 million, or 87 percent, were gainfully employed, but these figures understated unemployment, which the Ministry of Finance estimated at 18 percent in late 1987. All of these figures excluded persons said to be underemployed or partially employed, conditions that were prevalent in the rice-farming sector and in some of the urban-based service activities. The extent of labor underutilization, was believed to be much greater than indicated by the statistics for unemployment.

In the mid-1980s, sectors, such as tourism, that were sensitive to the security situation suffered job losses (see Tourism , this ch.). Migration to the Middle East, which also provided jobs in the early 1980s, was also on the decline, although still of substantial importance. In 1987 observers estimated that 100,000 Sri Lankans worked and lived in the Middle East--particularly in the small oil-rich states of the Arabian Peninsula, where wages for comparable work were much higher than in Sri Lanka.

A representative index showing changes in the general level of wages was not available in the late 1980s. Wages were low compared with those paid in developed countries, even in the unionized sectors, and incomes were unevenly distributed. Some indication of wage movements can be gained from the indices of minimum wage rates. These more than doubled between 1978 and 1986, but inflation probably kept their value little changed in real terms. The only price index, the Colombo Consumer Price Index, was based on data gathered in Colombo and was widely believed to understate inflationary increases, especially for the lower wage earners. It recorded an increase of 8 percent in 1986. Although this rate was considerably higher than the 1.5 percent increase recorded in 1985, it was low compared to the two-digit rates that prevailed during the 1978-84 period.

Low wages in the formal sector were partially offset by overtime payments, increments, bonuses, and other incentive programs, which often added considerable supplements to salaries. A five-day work week was standard in the 1980s. Sri Lanka had a large number of public holidays; twenty-four were celebrated in 1985. These included twelve full moon days, which are of religious significance to Buddhists.

Data as of October 1988