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The other side of the coin after peace in the north

The Fussy Labour in Jaffna

 By Muttukrishna Sarvananthan

When a private light engineering firm in Jaffna called for applications to fill a few vacancies no applications were received. On the other hand, according to the District Secretary Ms. Imelda Sukumar, when the local agriculture department called for applications to fill one hundred (100) vacancies it received nearly eleven thousand (11,000) applications. This is the paradox of the labour market in Jaffna and the North. The aversion to seek employment in the private sector is not only a malaise in Jaffna, but a nationwide malaise. A survey of youths undertaken by a team comprising Prof. Siri Hettige, et al, in 2009 revealed that about seventy percent (70%) of youths throughout the country (including the North East) was seeking employment in the public sector.

The Jaffna District Secretariat is inundated with applications for jobs from graduates. Imelda Sukumar highlighted that there are 26,000 young widows in the district whose livelihood needs to be ensured. Lack of employment opportunities and livelihoods is resulting in intra-household violence, social tensions, and crimes, particularly against women and children. She also said there is no plan for the reintegration of the former combatants into the society.

The obsession with public sector employment is one of the primary reasons for higher levels of unemployment and underemployment in the district compared to the country as a whole. On the other hand, according to Dr. Balasundarampillai (former Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna), not a single candidate out of the 269 graduates who sat the competitive examinations held recently for recruitment to the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) passed. The puzzle is that the unemployed and underemployed youths of Jaffna (particularly graduates) are seeking jobs in the public sector that are beyond their capability. This is a severe indictment of the local university that churns out unemployable graduates.        

Government jobs

The political reality and administrative irrationality is that eventually these unemployable graduates will be absorbed into the public sector, thereby further depleting the standards and quality of public services. Thus, a vicious circle of poor quality of graduates and poor standards and quality of public services will become entrenched; which inevitably results in poor governance at the local level and beyond.

Dr. Balasundarampillai said that though the production in agriculture and fisheries has increased a lot, it has not created many jobs. The rapidly growing financial sector is incapable of generating large number of jobs he pointed out. There are growing numbers of over-60s people seeking re-employment thereby accentuating the problem of unemployment and underemployment in Jaffna he also said. Mr. Rajkumar (Bachelor of Arts in Community and Regional Planning) said that seeking government jobs was part of the “culture of Jaffna” and stressed the importance of human resource planning by the government.      

Caste was identified as an institutional barrier for labour mobility among different occupations in the Jaffna peninsula. The caste system is based on the jobs certain groups of people do. For example, the job of priests at Hindu temples is exclusively reserved for Brahmins, which is the highest caste in the Hindu hierarchical system. Similarly, jobs associated with the palmyrah tree (toddy tapping, sweets made out of palmyrah fruits and stems, and handicrafts and decorations made out of palmyrah leaves and stems, etc), and fishing are reserved for people of a particular caste.

The occupational possessiveness is such that the Palmyrah Development Board would not be allowed to be headed by a person from any other caste. The construction sector in Jaffna, one of the thriving sectors in post-war reconstruction and development, is negatively affected by lack of masons, carpenters, etc, as a result of caste rigidity that restricts entry into these occupations by persons of other caste/s. Such monopolisation of certain occupations severely restricts labour mobility at times of labour shortage in those occupations. Therefore, “constructive destruction” (in the words of Karl Marx) or “creative destruction” (in the words of Joseph Schumpeter) of caste-based occupational structure is sine qua non for establishing a competitive labour market in Jaffna.     
Foreign remittances were insinuated as another critical factor distorting the labour market by raising the daily wage rates or monthly salaries over and above the market determined rates. Businesspersons pointed out that while not many were applying for advertised jobs in the private sector, youths could be seen roaming around the streets in their motorbikes with cell phones throughout the day. The fact that cell phones and motorbikes have become necessary accessories of large number of unemployed or underemployed youths is a direct result of foreign remittances flowing from kith and kin abroad. Absenteeism, non-punctuality, frequent sick reporting, and taking leave for fasting (gowri viratham, kanthasashty viratham, etc) are some of the labour problems faced by empoyers.

Some private sector employers have hired former combatants as their social responsibility. However, the requirement that former combatants report periodically (2-4 times a month) to army camps that are far away from their places of employment or residence is hindering hiring of former combatants for employment by the private sector.
Former combatants who live and work in Jaffna are required to report to army camps in Mullaitivu or Kilinochchi, which involves long journey. The private sector employers opined that such leave of absence is a significant loss to their business. Besides, visits of intelligence personnel to work sites of ex-combatants are demoralising to the latter and instilling a sense of fear among their workmates.

Pushed out from formal sector

Moreover, the Labour Department appears to be selectively taking-on private sector employers as regards payment of EPF and ETF after long years of idling. However, once some employers begin deducting EPF and ETF contributions from the salaries of their employees such employees are leaving their current employers (because of the drop in their take-home pay) to join employers who do not deduct EPF and ETF contributions. Thus, employees are pushed-out from the formal sector to the informal sector. This practice is also distorting the labour market in Jaffna.  

In summary, the obsession with public sector employment, poor quality of academic knowledge and life skills imparted at schools, universities, and higher education institutions, archaic caste-based occupational structure, and foreign remittances were identified as some of the primary causes of unemployment and underemployment in the North. Besides, this author’s observation is that primarily state-driven post-war development strategy in the North has led to economic growth with less than optimal employment creation because the public sector is saturated as regards employment opportunities as a result of the bloated bureaucracy, overgrown armed forces, and tight fiscal space.  

The foregoing was the outcome of an Despite our invitation to the local Labour Department and the Muslim Community to present their views on the topic, unfortunately they could not make avail of themselves at the Open Forum. Attempts to get a former combatant to talk about perceived labour market discrimination against them did not bear fruit.

Point Pedro Institute of Development, Point Pedro http://pointpedro.org
Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Colombo http://fessrilanka.org

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