Pandemics and Disruptions:
by Suresh Ranasinghe
The impact of COVID-19 on Sri Lanka’s labour market, education, migration, and health sectors were discussed at the second webinar panel discussion held on October 13, to mark the release of the ‘Sri Lanka: State of the Economy 2021’ report, the flagship report of the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS).
The event saw presentations by Dr Nisha Arunatilake and Dr Bilesha Weeraratne from IPS, with expert insights from Ms Madhavie Gunawardena, Director of TRCSL and Former Commissioner of Labour and Dr Kolitha Wickramage, Global Migration Health Research and Epidemiology Coordinator, Migration Health Division, International Organization for Migration (IOM). Ashani Abayasekera from IPS moderated the discussion.
Key highlights of the discussion are presented in this blog.
Presentation: Labour Markets and Education
Dr Nisha Arunatilake
An estimated 225 million people lost their jobs globally in 2020 due to COVID-19, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Sri Lanka’s labour market was also severely affected, with 150,000 people losing jobs and the quality of available jobs deteriorated with many workers taking on more vulnerable forms of employment (eg. agriculture, self-employment) that have low social security. The unemployment rate rose by 0.7% in 2020. The most affected were youth, low and medium-skilled individuals, and males, while several women left the labour market altogether.
The pandemic affected different types of workers differently. Frontline workers were the most vulnerable, and a large share of frontline workers are females. The ILO has classified industries according to their COVID-19-related economic output risk. This calculation was used to see how COVID-19 has affected different types of workers, and it shows that 39% of workers are in high-risk industries in Sri Lanka. Further, medium-skilled workers and women are more likely to be in high-risk industries.
The government took various measures to provide relief to workers, but the relief packages were given is not as sizeable as the types of relief provided in other countries. IPS research shows that the perception of employees, employers, and trade union leaders is that the government could have done better by providing financial support through the EPF/ETF funds, as done in other countries like India.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of providing pre-retirement social protection such as unemployment benefits and wage support during illnesses in addition to current post-retirement social protection measures. Therefore, it is necessary to create a separate fund to provide pre-retirement social protection as practised in Nepal, Malaysia, and Singapore.
A recent IPS study finds that, Sri Lanka’s ETF funds are sufficient to cover sickness and unemployment benefits to workers and provide wage support to retain jobs. In summary, the government must improve and expand access to social security for employees and firms, support firms to offer flexible work arrangements for higher labour participation and develop better labour market institutions that have the capacity to collect timely data and are prepared to address disaster risks.
Since March 2020, schools across Sri Lanka were closed other than for few brief periods of operation and the total number of school days missed are significantly higher in Sri Lanka compared to other countries. Even though the Ministry of Education and associated organisations provided lessons online and via TV, less than 50% of the students were reached online and in smaller schools, only 30% were reached by both online and TV. There needs to be an assessment done about the learning losses, and adjust the curricular, so that schools can focus on the most needed competencies to streamline and speed up the recovery.
Migration and Health
Dr Bilesha Weeraratne
A large number of migrant workers were forced to return much earlier than they planned due to the pandemic, and it affected earnings and their capacity to return. Notably, most of the returnees were either self-financed or their employer paid for their return air ticket. Limitations in Sri Lanka’s return and repatriation efforts were not able to bring a wide cross-section of returnees back to Sri Lanka from the onset itself. On average, there was a 4.5-month delay between the decision to return and the actual date of return. This was also because of the lack of proper information. Sri Lanka has a return and reintegration sub policy, and the issue was that it was not implemented.
Returning migrant workers require economic, social and psychosocial reintegration support but reintegration support was largely limited to immediate health support (testing, quarantine, treatment). Also, issues associated with the vaccination process in Sri Lanka such as irregular and inconsistent supply, delays in NMRA approvals, disorganised deployment etc. caused the delays in vaccinating potential migrant workers as well. However, the vaccination process for migrant workers was much better organised than the overall vaccination process in the country.
Sri Lanka sends 225,000 workers abroad while foreign annual exchange earnings is USD7 billion. Although in 2020 there were just 53,713 registered departures, remittances increased grew by 5.8%. They began declining since the beginning of 2021. There were many reasons for the growth last year like informal remittance channels being closed due to the lockdown and workers increasing their remittances through formal channels. Further, workers who were terminated would have got lump sums as terminal benefits which were remitted, while another reason would have been the reluctance of returnees to carry cash as they had to be quarantined on arrival.
Commentary: Labour Markets and Education
Ms Madhavie Gunawardena
The COVID-19 pandemic has flagged the need for Sri Lanka to revisit its labour laws and regulations. Since the labour market was forced to accept work from home (WFH), accommodating flexibility in labour legislation and other legislation governing the workplace is essential. Accommodating flexible working practices is important, especially for women, as this allows them to balance their family and work responsibilities, thus retaining them in the labour force. With prolonged school closures, there is currently no way of improving the students’ soft skills as extra-curricular and co-curricular activities were halted. This will affect their employability in the future.
Commentary: Migration and Health
Dr Kolitha Wickramage
In the migration sector, future policy decisions should take into consideration factors such as the gender dimension of returnees and skills requirements of migrant workers as well. Psychosocial health and mental health are extremely important for the reintegration package since this is still an unmet agenda. Even though the overall vaccination process including vaccination for migrant workers in Sri Lanka is appreciable, the number of deaths and serious cases can be averted if a more systematic strategy such as those provided by WHO Sage recommendations were followed. The IPS State of the Economy report must be commended for recognising the need to address psychosocial issues of migrants, in addition to their social and economic issues.
ComBank partners with PayHere to offer Q+ users a unique eCommerce experience
The Commercial Bank of Ceylon has partnered with PayHere, Sri Lanka’s largest Aggregated Internet Payment Gateway Service, to offer users of its Q+ Payment App a unique, user-friendly and secure eCommerce experience.
Commercial Bank customers can now conveniently pay for their purchases via the Q+ app to over 3300 registered PayHere Online Payment Service enabled merchants. The Bank’s Credit, Debit and Prepaid Card holders who pay through Q+, the fastest-growing QR app in the country, will not be required to tap in their card details as this information is already stored on the app, the Bank said.
Payments to PayHere merchants via the Q+ Online Pay facility will enhance customer convenience as the transaction will only require the entering of users’ mobile numbers registered with the app. Disbursements via Q+ require authentication using a static PIN which ensures the safety and security of transactions, making the Q+ App more secure than a normal card as the customers’ sensitive data is not transmitted to merchant websites.
TAMAP drives Stakeholder Forum for Good Agriculture Practice
The inaugural meeting of the GAP Stakeholder Forum was held with the support of the Technical Assistance to the Modernisation of Agriculture Programme (TAMAP) at the Department of Agriculture in Peradeniya on 17 November 2021. Prof. Udith K Jayasinghe, Secretary Ministry of Agriculture, graced the occasion as the Chief Guest.
The Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) programme, introduced by the Department of Agriculture in 2016, was a promising step taken to minimise adverse impacts of agriculture on the ecosystem and human health while meeting steadily rising demand for food. Although the programme had an encouraging start, the overall conversion of farmers to implementing GAP remained low. Over the past six years, 1500 farmers registered as GAP producers out of the 1.8 million farmers in Sri Lanka. To align with the current policy of the Sri Lankan Government to improve ecological friendliness of farming, it is important to transform all production units towards GAP farms.
Studies showed that to achieve this goal, the GAP implementation strategies needed to be updated and infused into the mainstream agriculture, facilitating a quick transformation of the current approach towards a macro-level system. Therefore, the requirement for a rapid strategizing of such an approach followed by periodic review of GAP performance arose. This initiated the need for a stakeholder forum.
The key purpose of the forum is to provide a common platform for key stakeholders to meet in formulating a strategy to mainstream SL GAP, propose a way forward for implementation such recommendations, and to regularly review program performance and adopt remedial action to achieve GAP objectives.
Prof. Udith K Jayasinghe, Secretary Ministry of Agriculture who chaired the Forum in his opening statement commented, “GAP programme has emerged a solution to challenges faced by Sri Lankan agriculture today to improve safety of users and ensuring good environmental performance. Reinforced by facilitating legislation and approved national standards, GAP programme provides a strong foundation towards addressing above concerns.”.
Over forty participants were present at the forum, representing the various stakeholder groups comprising producers, distributers, SL GAP team, academics, and market players. Ms D. S. Ratnasinghe, Addl. Director (Agribusiness) and Dr W. M. W. Weerakoon, National Coordinator outlined the status of the GAP programme and the challenges faced.
The deliberations during the forum were broken down into five main areas: Technical, financial, institutional, and social problems faced by GAP stakeholders on maintaining production, supply, product quality, and consumer trust. Gaps in technology transfer and adoption, marketing and quality control measures and means for increased rate of adoption and GAP farm certification; Gaps in current GAP process and procedures, user friendliness and applicability; Future technological needs towards increasing production, productivity, product quality and ecosystem sustainability; and Policy needs for increased adoption of GAP to mainstream GAP into national agriculture agenda.
Prof. G. Pushpakumara, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya and Ms Jayantha Ilankoon, ADG (Dev) moderated the forum through group activity, outcome presentations and strategic discussions on the way forward.
Concluding the forum, Dr Nihal Atapattu, stated, “TAMAP, along with the European Union that provided the funding support is very pleased to have assisted to launch several interventions that would promote recognition of GAP as a premier means of strengthening Sri Lankan agriculture in sustainably meet requirements of the domestic and export markets. TAMAP expects that the Stakeholder Forum launched today will be a milestone event in advancing GAP to achieve its potential in Sri Lanka”.
HNB’s commitment to expand e-commerce and digital payments wins Daraz award
HNB has been recognized by Daraz for exceptional contribution to its growth, in an independent endorsement of Sri Lanka’s leading private bank’s commitment to expand e-commerce and digital payments throughout the country.
The award, for the ‘Card Base with Highest Overall Growth’, was presented to HNB at the ‘Daraz Payment Partner Performance Awards 2021’. HNB, which ranks among Daraz’s best banking partners, recorded the highest growth on total payment volume, buyer engagement and total transactions month-on-month, for both credit and debit cards for the year 2020-2021.
“This award is an important validation how the local economy – both businesses and consumers – are benefiting from HNB’s cohesive programme to drive greater adoption of e-commerce and digital payments,” HNB Head of Cards, Gauthami Niranjan said. “These efforts are particularly significant at present, given how digital and contactless payments can assist in reducing the spread of the pandemic and support the Bank’s and the country’s vision to transform Sri Lanka to a cashless economy.”
Currently, HNB Cardholders enjoy multiple offers on Daraz, Sri Lanka’s leading online marketplace, a wholly-owned subsidiary of global e-commerce giant, the Alibaba Group. These include zero-interest instalment plans up to 48 months with attractive discounts for HNB Credit and Debit Cards and 10% off site-wide on Daraz for all HNB Credit Cards on purchases made during Saturdays. In addition, HNB tied up with Daraz for its 11:11 and Black Friday sales, which provided HNB Cardholders access to a range of offers and massive discounts.
HNB has been a pioneer in Sri Lanka’s banking industry in the digital banking and digital payments space. These include the launch of digital wallet and payment app, HNB SOLO and introducing Asia’s first-ever fitness-linked savings product in the form of the HNB FIT Savings Account.
With 254 customer centres across the country, HNB is one of Sri Lanka’s largest, most technologically-innovative banks, having won local and global recognition for its efforts to drive forward a new paradigm in digital banking. HNB has a national rating of AA- (lka) by Fitch Ratings (Lanka) Ltd. The bank was also ranked among the World Top 1,000 Banks list compiled by the prestigious UK-based Banker Magazine for five consecutive years. HNB was also declared Best Sub-Custodian Bank in Sri Lanka at the Global Finance Awards 2020.
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