The Sunday Leader

The Fussy Labour In Jaffna

By Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan

A load too heavy to bear?

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 Imelda Sukumar, when the local agriculture department called for applications to fill 100 vacancies, it received nearly 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 nation-wide malaise. A survey of youths undertaken by a team comprising Prof. Siri Hettige, et al, in 2009 revealed that about 70 percent of youth 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 results in intra-household violence, social tensions, and crimes, particularly against women and children. She also underlined the fact that there is no proper plan in place for the reintegration of former combatants to society.
The obsession with public sector employment is one of the primary reasons for higher levels of unemployment and under-employment in the district of Jaffna compared to the country as a whole. On the other hand, according to former Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna Dr. Balasundarampillai, not a single candidate out of the 269 graduates who sat for the competitive examinations held recently for recruitment to the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) passed. The puzzle is that unemployed and under-employed youths of Jaffna (particularly graduates) are seeking jobs in the public sector that are beyond their capability. This is a severe indictment of a local university that churns out unemployable graduates.
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 cycle of poor quality graduates, poor standards and quality of public services will become entrenched; which inevitably result in poor governance at the local level and beyond.
Dr. Balasundarampillai opined that though the production in agriculture and fishing 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 people over 60 seeking re-employment, thereby accentuating the problem of unemployment and under-employment in Jaffna according to Balasundarampillai. Bachelor of Arts in Community and Regional Planning Mr. Rajkumar opined 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 from respective caste. Similar caste-based occupational patterns exist in the South of the country as well. For example, the jobs associated with Cinnamon trees (cinnamon cultivation, peeling, etc.) in the district of Galle are reserved for people from 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 castes. Such monopolisation of certain occupations severely restrict 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 market determined rates. Business persons 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 und-eremployed youths is a direct result of foreign remittances flowing from kith and kin abroad. Absenteeism, non-punctuality, frequent sick leave, and taking leave for fasting (gowri viratham, kanthasashty viratham, etc.) are some of the labour problems faced by private sector employers.
Some private sector employers have hired former combatants as a social responsibility. However, the requirement that former combatants report periodically (two to four 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 involve long journeys. 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. The senior army personnel who participated in the Open Forum undertook to take up this issue with the Jaffna Army Commander.
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 a formal to 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 under-employment 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; a result of a bloated bureaucracy, overgrown armed forces, and tight fiscal space.
The foregoing was the outcome of an open forum titled Labour Market Conundrum in Jaffna and the North held at the auditorium of the Jaffna Public Library on June 03 jointly organised by the Point Pedro Institute of Development (PPID) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). The open forum started with the introduction and rationale of the topic and the introduction of the resource persons by the Resident Representative of the FES, Joachim Schluletter. The District Secretary Imelda Sukumar, Emeritus Professor and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jaffna Dr. Ponnudurai Balasundarampillai, and a job-seeking graduate P. Rajkumar were the main speakers. The forum was moderated by the Principal Researcher of the PPID, Muttukrishna Sarvananthan. Senior armed forces personnel from Palaly, Point Pedro, and Varani army camps, university students, unemployed youths, past and present public servants, and industrialists and construction professionals participated in the open forum.
Despite our invitation to the local Labour Department and the Muslim Community to present their views on the topic, unfortunately they could not make themselves available at the forum. Attempts to get a former combatant to talk about perceived labour market discrimination did not bear fruit. The absence of the foregoing representatives at the open forum was very much missed by the participants.

Dr. Sarvananthan can be contacted at: Point Pedro Institute of Development, Point Pedro
Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Colombo

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