Stranger: Are you from Sri Lanka?
Visiting Sri Lankan: Yes, why?
Stranger: We are also from Sri Lanka. Do you work here?
Visiting Sri Lankan: No, I am on holiday?
Stranger: Oh! I was wondering whether you could get us a job. We have been in Dubai looking for a job without any success.
Visiting Sri Lankan: So you came to Dubai without a confirmed job?
Stranger: Yes because of the crisis in Sri Lanka. We have been struggling in the past few weeks, running out of cash.
According to some official estimates, nearly a million people have gone abroad with either secure jobs or looking for work. The Passport Office is crowded daily with young people applying for a new passport or extending a current one.
Quite a few people visit Dubai (like the example listed earlier) on tourist visas and stay on trying to find jobs. There are numerous requests on the Internet from Sri Lankans who have gone to Dubai, got stranded and are asking for a contact to get a job. Recently, one Sri Lankan who is established there, posted a message saying his company was seeking workers from Sri Lanka and could help those who are already in West Asia seeking jobs.
Many of the Sri Lankans in Dubai (where there is no need to follow cumbersome procedures for a visa since you get one on arrival), are on visit visas looking for jobs and they try to contact another Sri Lankan friend or acquaintance, pleading for jobs .
Half-way through today’s column, I was momentarily distracted by the arrival of Aldoris’s tuk-tuk. The trio had gathered at the gate to greet Aldoris.
“Oya kohomada, Aldoris (How are you Aldoris),” asked Kussi Amma Sera. “HondaiMiss (Fine, Miss), he said, while handing out’maulu pans’ to his customers. “Mae piti mila ekka kohomada kalamanakaranaya kara ganne (How are you managing with the high cost of flour),” asked Mabel Rasthiyadu. “Amarui, eth ithin kalamanakaranaya karaganna avashshiayai ne. Mae davas wala rassawal uth nae ne. Godak tharuna kattiyata harima amarui (It’s difficult but I have to manage. There are no jobs available these days and young jobless people are having a hard time),” he replied.
Godak kattiyage rassawal nethi wela thiyenawa covid prashnaya saha arthika arbudaya nisa (Many people have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and the economic crisis),” noted Serapina.
As I listened to their conversation, the phone rang in the house. it was ‘Koththamalli’ Fernando, the Kokatath Thailaya (oil for many aids) expert who has a remedy for any issue. “Hello Koththamallinice to hear from you after a long time,” I said pleasantly.
“Yes, I have been busy with patients seeking all kinds of treatments for their ailments. The economic crisis has also triggered a health crisis,” he said.
“Just now, I was reflecting on the crisis of jobs in the country. Many people have lost their jobs due to the economic crisis and are trying to go abroad to try their luck. Do you have a remedy for job seekers?” I asked.
“That’s a difficult one. But with health and wellness becoming a huge business these days, maybe those in difficulty should join the wellness industry. It’s not easy but they should try,” he said.
“However, do people have enough money to improve their health with wellness programs? I doubt whether this would succeed,” I said.
“I think that if our tourism sector increases its wellness aspect, particularly at a time when we are competing with other Asian countries to entice travelers, we should be able to succeed with such a niche offering,” he said, ending the conversation after a long discussion on other topics.
Finding jobs is a difficult exercise for young people and also for those who have lost their jobs. The economy is going through tough times and according to President Ranil Wickremesinghe “the country is broke” – a comment he made while addressing a meeting with the Sri Lankan diaspora in London.
According to one statistic by the Central Bank – the SL Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) – employment continued to fall in August due to increasing resignations besides a halt in new recruitments, non-renewal of existing employment contracts and retirements.
On the positive side, employment increased in August 2022 in the textile and apparel manufacturing sector which frequently suffered due to a scarcity of employees. Garment exports have been the saving grace in the economy, performing well despite the turbulence.
The desperation to get a job amidst the shortage of jobs in Sri Lanka was evident in the long queues seen outside the Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo recently where Qatar Airways was conducting interviews for multiple jobs in different sectors of this Doha-based company.
Another sector where a number of jobs have been lost is construction. More than 90 per cent of construction work has come to a standstill, mainly in government contracts, for multiple reasons including the inability to pay contractors and a shortage of raw material due to the foreign exchange crisis. According to some estimates, nearly 900,000 direct and part-time workers have lost their livelihoods in construction work.
With many people migrating in search of jobs, the brain drain will be a severe drag on the economy in the coming years. As and when Sri Lanka fully recovers from the economic crisis and reaches 2018 levels of growth, the country will face a shortage of skilled and unskilled workers and then may be forced into a situation where labor has to be imported! This is the challenge facing policy makers.
Sri Lanka is eternally challenged with bad news. For example, food inflation in August rose to 84.6 per cent from 82.5 per cent in July, according to the Central Bank, while annual inflation rose to 70.2 per cent in August from 66.7 per cent in July.
As I sipped from my second mug of tea this Thursday morning, my thoughts were on the Herculean task faced by policymakers in reviving a struggling economy and as to what is in store for us in the 2023 budget to be presented in November.
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