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‘Sri Lanka needs GSP+ now more than ever following the pandemic’

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By Felix Fernando

Much has been said of the potential economic costs to Sri Lanka, of losing the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Plus trade concessions to the European Union (EU). While these costs will be high, the social and human costs are likely to be even greater.

Considering official statistics for 2021, available up to end November, the EU was Sri Lanka’s single largest export market for 2021, accounting for nearly a quarter (24.1%) of our total merchandise exports of US$ 11.1 billion.

Given the EU’s importance to Sri Lanka, the loss of preferential tariffs for Sri Lanka’s exports to the EU through GSP+ previously, in 2010, had a substantial adverse impact on our economy. This likely led to an increase in poverty and income inequality as per academic studies (for example, Bandara and Naranpanawa, 2014). At present, given the ramifications of the pandemic, the consequences of the loss of GSP+ could be far more dire, leading to increase in unemployment, poverty, vulnerability and inequality, as well as loss of improvements achieved in female empowerment.

According to the World Bank’s estimates, Sri Lanka’s poverty rate rose from 9.2% in 2019 to 11.7% in 2020, putting more than 500,000 additional people in poverty. The country’s poorest were disproportionately negatively affected. Adding to the woes stemming from the loss of income and livelihoods – especially by informal workers who account for around 70% of Sri Lanka’s labour force – the cost of living has soared in recent times. Inflation was at a 12-year high in December 2021, with food prices surging to levels that have led to fears regarding increase in malnutrition and hunger.

In such a scenario, the loss of GSP+ would be highly damaging. EU is a key market for some of Sri Lanka’s largest export industries including apparel, food exports and plastic and rubber exports. These sectors employ a substantial portion of our workforce and are also characterised by the heavy presence of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). In addition, the EU has been a significant contributor to the growth of some of these exports industries – for instance rubber-based exports and seafood.

For Sri Lanka’s biggest export industry, apparel, the EU is particularly critical, being the single largest market. The EU accounted for $2.2 billion or nearly half (43.6%) of the sector’s total export earnings for 2021. The apparel industry employs 350,000 workers in the country, of which nearly 80% are rural women. Female representation in the industry is more than double the national average, considering the share of women in Sri Lanka’s labour force. Therefore, if GSP+ is lost, vast improvements made in female economic empowerment and overall human capital could also be in jeopardy.

SMEs and family-owned businesses are also likely to be more severely affected if GSP+ is unavailable. Many apparel SMEs tend to depend on subcontracts from larger players, which will dry up if excess orders are not available due to loss of preferential access to key export markets. Earlier, when GSP+ concessions were removed in 2010, there were reports of several SME apparel factories being closed down, which also led to unemployment. Currently, SMEs account for approximately 45% or nearly half of Sri Lanka apparel manufacturing facilities and provide employment to around 50,000 employees.

Many apparel manufacturing facilities in the country are located outside urban areas and industrial zones and are crucial in generating rural employment. SMEs are particularly vital in this regard since due to their relatively smaller scale, which requires less workers, a high percentage of these factories are located in less-populated and lagging regions.

Many other sectors in the country rely on the apparel industry, given its heavy presence across the island. These include logistics and transport providers, raw material suppliers as well as small-scale businesses providing food and refreshments. In addition, several cottage industries, such as producers of carpets and pillow covers, depend on apparel factories in their neighbourhoods for raw material (in the form of waste fabric). If the industry is to suffer a downturn due to loss of GSP+, this entire economic ecosystem too will suffer adverse trickle-down effects.

In addition, the pandemic has led to global re-orientation of supply chains which Sri Lanka’s apparel sector is well-positioned to capitalise on. However, this requires easy access to exports markets, through trade arrangements such as GSP+. Export earnings, which generate foreign exchange, are also vital for Sri Lanka’s economic stability, as well as to meet our foreign debt obligations.

Hence, given these challenges and opportunity costs, Sri Lanka needs GSP+ now, perhaps more than ever before.

In discussions with the Government, the apparel industry and other export sectors have impressed upon the authorities the importance of retaining GSP+. These concerns have been met favourably by the authorities and the industry is hopeful of a positive outcome.

In addition to retaining GSP+ in the immediate future, it is important that Sri Lanka engages with the EU to enjoy the benefits of the new GSP+ facility, which will commence in 2024, replacing the existing scheme. Sri Lanka needs to be prepared to align itself with the 33 conventions of the new scheme, compared with the 26 conventions of the current GSP+ regime. It is critical that the policymakers and the authorities commence these preparations now.

In addition to GSP+, the apparel sector has also emphasised on the authorities the importance of low-tariff or tariff-free access to other key export destinations – such as USA, China, India (to which a quota applies for apparel exports from Sri Lanka), Japan and South Korea. The Government has responded favourably to these concerns and the industry is hopeful of a positive outcome. New Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) can provide a significant boost to expanding and diversifying Sri Lanka’s and the apparel industry’s export markets.

While these are critical at present, it is important to recognise that the apparel industry does not expect GSP+ concessions to remain indefinitely. We are mindful of the fact that the country will lose its trade concessions in the future, as we gradually transition to an upper middle-income nation.

With the assistance of other stakeholders, including the Sri Lankan Government, the apparel sector has commenced a series of concerted initiatives to prepare the industry for the potential loss of trade concessions in the future. These efforts are also aimed at transforming Sri Lanka into a global apparel hub, increase the sector’s competitiveness and diversify its export markets.

The foundation has already been laid in this regard. For instance, Sri Lanka has positioned itself as a leader in sustainable apparel manufacturing. Sri Lankan apparel producers have invested significantly in manufacturing facilities that incorporate the latest environmentally-friendly features – minimising wastage, energy, and emissions.

The apparel sector has also made progress in further strengthening human resource practices. Through the ‘Garments without Guilt’ initiative, many Sri Lankan factories voluntarily submitted themselves to independent audits of working conditions. In December 2021, the apparel industry also signed a historic agreement with trade unions, paving the way for greater transparency in employee control over dispute resolution and grievance handling.

In the long run, these initiatives can strengthen Sri Lanka’s apparel industry significantly and, by extension, the country’s export sector, reducing the need for trade concessions. However, if these concessions are removed now, the social and human costs are likely to be dire. Given the pandemic’s unprecedented impact, GSP+ to the EU is critical for Sri Lanka and its export sectors at present.

(Felix A. Fernando is the CEO of Alpha Apparels Ltd. and Sirio Ltd., and a Group Director of Omega Line, which ranks among Sri Lanka’s five largest apparel exporters. He holds a MBA from the Post Graduate Institute of Management (USJ), in addition to being a Fellow member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, U.K. He has received extensive Executive Education at Harvard, The Wharton School, National University of Singapore and AOTS, Japan. Fernando is also the Deputy Chairman of the Joint Apparel Association Forum Sri Lanka and a Past Chairman of the Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters’ Association.)



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Private Tutoring Amidst Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis: Issues Faced by Students

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By Usha Perera

Sri Lanka’s education sector, still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, now faces acute challenges due to the current political and economic crises. The sudden imposition of curfews and the lack of transportation have resulted in school closures and students being deprived of structured and systematic in-school education. In Sri Lanka, closing schools for just one day causes a loss of 25 million learning hours and 1.4 million teaching hours. Alongside this, private tutoring has gained greater importance. This blog discusses the issues faced mainly by Ordinary Level (O/L) and Advanced Level (A/L) students in attending tuition classes based on an IPS study. The study findings are derived from a sample of about 340 students, and 16 teachers and tutors across Sri Lanka.

Affordability of Private Tuition Classes

The surge in the cost of living with wages failing to keep pace with inflation and loss of income generation channels have been unbearable for parents of school-going children. The IPS study found that students who belonged to family income levels below LKR 30,000 spend approximately LKR 3,000-Rs. 7,000 per month while students whose family income was above LKR 200,000 spend approximately LKR 18,000- LKR 20,000 per month on private tuition depending on the grade of the student. This scenario is illustrated in Figure 1.

Further, most O/L and A/L level students spend more than LKR 2,000 per month on data packages for both school and tuition online classes, while most students who spend more than LKR 2,000 per month are concentrated among the higher family income categories. If LKR 2,000 is spent on monthly data packages, it would approximately account for 1% of whose family income is above LKR 200,000, and more than 7% of whose family income is below LKR 30,000. All this highlights the perceived importance of private education, especially among O/L and A/L grades, and the financial burden it imposes on a family’s household income.

These affordability concerns were partly offset by the introduction of free online classes during the pandemic, which has provided considerable relief for financially vulnerable students according to students interviewed for the IPS study. Affordability concerns were further allayed by reduced class fees by some tutors. The fees reductions were made accounting for the structural changes of administrative and operating costs of an online setting applicable based on the scale and intensity of operations of tutors. Financial issues faced by the families experiencing household income losses during the pandemic were also considered in fees reduction.

Accessibility to Online Classes

Online platforms were the sole medium for conducting classes during the pandemic while it becomes an option in the current context considering the social unrest, curfews and travel constraints due to fuel shortages. However, many students faced accessibility issues in joining online classes. The issues faced were poor signal coverage, high data costs, lack of necessary devices, and affordability concerns in the context of lost household income during the pandemic. Most of the students who belonged to a family income level above LKR 200,000 used a laptop/tablet while most of the students who belonged to a family income level of below LKR 30,000 relied on a smartphone. Smartphones were found to be less user friendly for academic use. In addition to the above issues, the ongoing power outages also present impediments to online education.The accessibility issues are mainly experienced by students from families with comparatively lower income levels, and those who had to rely on a smartphone for academic purposes. This implies a close positive relationship between household income and the quality of the education received; financial strength being the primary determinant of accessibility.

Figure 1: Monthly Tuition Expenditure by Monthly Household Income
Source: Institute of PolicyStudies of Sri Lanka, 2021.

However, these accessibility issues were partly offset by the divergent opportunities experienced by students, especially in the context of online platforms. These prospects included the ability to join online classes conducted in distant locations that would otherwise have been restricted due to travel constraints and increased time available due to school closures. As a result, they increased the duration of tuition classes using the saved travel time.

Way Forward

While private tutoring became a way of bridging the gaps in the education system during the crisis, learning losses for the most vulnerable groups have further widened with accessibility and affordability issues. Since these issues were mainly observed among O/L and A/L student groups, there is a higher risk that vulnerable student groups would be highly challenged during their most decisive years leading to higher education and career development. Thus, it is necessary to address the affordability issues, focusing more on the vulnerable student groups. Financial assistance could be provided in terms of a certain number of free hours of teaching for selected financially vulnerable students and allocating a selected proportion of students to be taught at a concessionary rate.

To address the accessibility issues, recording the lessons and distributing the notes on different platforms will help to a certain extent. Providing digital equipment and networks for selected tuition centres and schools could also be considered since the lack of facilities and resources was identified as major accessibility issue for distance education. These would require collaborative efforts among the government, tutors, parents, non-government organisations and any other well-wishers.

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Allianz Divitharana: A new take on Life and Health Insurance

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The world’s number one insurance brand Allianz has announced the launch of its new Divitharana Insurance product, which provides comprehensive life and health insurance for policyholders and their loved ones, at an easily accessible and affordable price. The product, which has been designed for the mass market, a segment that is highly price sensitive, comes with a host of benefits and features, making it a truly comprehensive insurance product, that covers all of life’s important bases, protecting life’s most precious things.Tailored for the mass market, which includes farmers, fisherfolk, technicians, teachers, executives and other members of the general public, Divitharana Insurance provides life insurance at a flexible and economic price point, with the option for policyholders to settle the premium in monthly, quarterly, biannual or annual instalments, while also providing the convenience of increasing the cover provided during the policy period, without having to go for a new policy. These are particularly important features amidst the present economic challenges the nation is facing, as it allows everyone to have access to good and reliable insurance, regardless of their income level and style.

A key differentiator of Divitharana insurance is that each policyholder will be entitled to an individual investment account, on which an annual dividend will be declared and the proceeds credited to the policyholder’s account. On top of this, policyholders will also be entitled to an additional loyalty bonus of 20%, which will be added to the maturity value for continued on-time premium settlements. other than the life cover provided by Divitharana, policyholders can also opt to include additional covers such as Disability Benefit, Critical Illness and Hospitalisation cover, while also enjoying the flexibility of extending the insurance cover to include their spouse & children.

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SLT-MOBITEL doubling the cloud with country’s first-ever VMware Cloud Foundation deployment

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Understanding the importance of breaking new ground to reap the benefits of Enterprise premium cloud services, SLT-MOBITEL, the National ICT Solutions Provider, has become the country’s first-ever service provider to enable VMware Cloud Foundation (VCF) deployment in the island and importantly the first telco provider to have two clouds. Amidst the changing dynamics, the deployment milestones are supporting SLT-MOBITEL’s Cloud programme in accelerating digital transformation.SLT-MOBITEL Enterprise premium cloud was launched in 2018. Having a successful journey for over three years, the new mobilization now elevates and transforms the premium cloud through VMWare Cloud Foundation. Importantly, SLT-MOBITEL is the first local organisation to partner VMWare as a Business Continuity Certified Planner (BCCP) and initiate VMWare Cloud Foundation in Sri Lanka.

VMware Cloud Foundation is a suite of VMware products that provide building blocks necessary to implement an integrated software-defined data center platform. Its components combine to automate deployment and lifecycle management, helping to simplify IT operations and reduce administrative overheads for enterprises.With its Cloud Verified Status and as a VCF Enabled Partner, SLT-MOBITEL is now in the forefront as the only service provider in the country offering a range of new differentiated services such as automate infrastructure and application delivery with self service capabilities to help organizations plan, manage and scale their data center operations especially dramatically reduce provisioning times and cut operational costs.

The SLT-MOBITEL VMware VCF deployment ensures customers transition to the industry’s most advanced cloud platform with a complete set of software-defined services for compute, storage, networking, security and cloud management to run enterprise apps in private or public environments.By doubling the cloud SLT-MOBITEL establishes customers have both production and disaster recovery sites with different scales, located at two different Data centres with required ROP and RTO. The Disaster recovery site can be deployed at any scale with respect to production sites according to the enterprise customer’s requirement. SLT-MOBITEL also provides migration as a service with the features from NSX –T.

Through VCF, SLT-MOBITEL is offering customers the benefit of real disaster recovering services, a Software-defined Data Center (SDDC) and monitoring services, latest networking enablers with NSX – T up-to-date versions of VMware software vSphere, vSAN and intelligent, advanced VMware capabilities including ESXI and VSAN and efficient and effective migration services. SLT-MOBITEL also provides IaaS services, Virtual Machines, and Virtual Data Centers along with a range of other support facilities such as Disaster avoidance with Stretch Cluster (RPO 5 minutes), Disaster Recovery as a Service, and Backup as a service.Above VCF deployment is directly done by Vmware Professional Service team to ensure the highest quality deployment .

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