Labour Reforms in Time of Great Crisis



Manusha Nanayakkara

Sri Lanka is in the middle of a dire economic crisis. We are a witness to the new depths of misery that the people have been plunged into. Working people are the hardest hit, who have had to grapple with precarious wages, job insecurity and the devastation of an economic depression. Despite this perilous situation, the government is proposing labour reforms that threaten to render the situation of the working classes even more precarious. In his Budget 2023 speech in November 2022, the President called for reforms “for an export-oriented economy”. Soon thereafter, Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment Shan Yahampath elaborated on the impending proposals, pointing to the introduction of “a unified labour code which will seek to move away from the current employee-friendly labour law system to a system that strikes a balance between the rights of the employee and the employer.” At the May Day rally of the UNP, Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment Manusha Nanayakkara presented a 11-point reform agenda, outlining the principles of the reforms, which proposes to tilt the balance of power further in favour of employers. Nanayakkara’s proposals, the most elaborate so far, is at best sketchy, and at worst is a calculated move to weaken the collective strength of the working population in the formal sector. The message is loud and clear, when

Nanayakkara prefaces his presentation with, “We still have archaic labour laws, a labour law which turns away investors.”

On June 14th, at a consultative meeting, Nanayakkara, reiterated the need for reforms, necessary, in his view, in some 20-odd areas of existing labour-law. While saying that reforms are needed in the plantation sector and in the provisions of EPF and ETF, he stresses the importance of casual labour and the need to turn much of formal labour into casual labour. Herein lie the dangers of the current reforms.

The proposals are in part framed in the language of social protection, advancing the rights of the worker in the informal sector. Protection from violence in the workplace for women and incorporating people with disabilities in the labour force mean little when the overall climate is steeped in job insecurity and economic precarity. Further, the mantra of increasing women’s participation in the labour force is designed to be extractive of the labour of women in the face of diminishing worker-protection.

Sri Lanka’s labour laws, though nothing to marvel at, have historically afforded the worker some protection from the blatant disregard of their rights. Yet, through fragmentation of the labour force, outsourcing and casualizing of formal contractual labour, and other disempowering measures, industrial management has been able to get around these laws. The bulk of our work force in the formal sector is composed of women. Vulnerable at the best of times to the vicissitudes of management practices, they had been one of the first casualties of economic crises. During the COVID pandemic we saw how vulnerable our workers were to shifting trends of the economy, locally and internationally. Labour laws were flouted; workers were both left stranded and deemed outcast. At the same time, they were compelled through coercive consent, to work under trying conditions. This scenario will be formalized through the proposed reforms. The threat is imminent.

Weakening the contractual bonds between worker and management leads to casualisation, greater job insecurity and greater exploitation of the worker. Laws surrounding hiring and termination need to be clear and protect the worker from precarity. At the moment, we have termination laws that do protect the worker. Relaxing them would pose a dire threat to the worker’s well-being. There is also talk of flexible working hours. This is most detrimental to the worker, who under pressure, will be trapped in a complex cycle of coercive and extractive labour within the casualization of their work; there will be little protection from working hours. Legal provisions for sick leave, maternity leave and stipulated periods of rest and leisure that the worker is entitled to will be eroded into. We know that while more than 10 days’ night work for women is not allowed at garment factories, in practice women are engaged in long hours of night work, with few safety measures in place.

The proposed reforms are designed to formalise the progressive weakening of labour laws and further disempower the worker through taking away whatever protection that is in place now. It is telling that when a meeting of the National Labour Advisory Council, which is composed of representatives of the state, the employers and trade union representatives of the workers, was called last month, four unions representing workers in the private sector and not affiliated to any political parties were left out of the composition. This is a clear indication of how the government is setting the stage for weakening the representative bodies of the workers, and thereby render them totally powerless, when reforms are initiated.

The economy of the plantations is on the cusp of change and the Malaiyaha worker is staring into a future of fragmentation of community, job insecurity, and lack of land. They have been long fighting for a living wage, and basic citizenship, namely, decent living conditions, safety at work, the right to land, decent housing and accessible schooling. Nanayakkaras 11-point proposals say that the government proposes to create “a plantation worker fit for the modern world of work,” ignoring the current state of gross injustice meted out to the worker in the plantation sector.

By undermining labour-laws the government hopes to attract investment and boost the economy. It is a road show put on for the sake of potential investors. But the regime is sadly out of touch with economic realities. There is a global economic recession. Our economy shrunk by 12.4% and by 11.5%, in the last quarter of 2022 and first quarter of 2023 respectively. As they stand, labour laws are not the cause of the economic crisis, and reforming them is not the solution. Rather, the economy is in a state of continued collapse, because of austerity, lack of job creation policies, and inadequate social protection and relief to the working people. In the end, we will be left with an irrevocable undermining of the worker’s Rights.

As academics, we are obliged to adopt an informed position on something as fundamental as labour relations. It affects us all. An informed, worker-oriented and people-oriented labour policy, a policy that provides security to all, and a policy that ensures stability and democratic practice in production and in the workplace is the need of the hour. Else, we would be looking to a future of suffering and instability. The already authoritarian government can only become more authoritarian in the face of imminent social unrest. We must join the forces of democracy to build a better future for all.


1. A.M. Navaratna Bandara, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya

2. Ahilan Kadirgamar, Univ. of Jaffna

3. A.M.J.H. Amandakoon, Univ. of Peradeniya

4. Amalka Wijesuriya, Univ. of Ruhuna

5. Anuruddha Karunarathna, Univ. of Peradeniya

6. Anushka Kahandagama, formerly Univ. of Colombo

7. Arjuna Aluwihare, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya

8. Arjuna Parakrama, Univ. of Peradeniya

9. Aruni Samarakoon, Univ. of Ruhuna

10. Athulasiri Samarkoon, The Open University of Sri Lanka

11. Avanka Fernando, Univ. of Colombo

12. B.P.B.W. Rathnayake, Univ. of Peradeniya

13. Barana Jayawardana, Univ. of Peradeniya

14. Bahirathy J.R, Univ. of Jaffna

15. Buddhima Padmasiri, The Open University of Sri Lanka

16. Camena Guneratne, The Open University of Sri Lanka

17. Chirath Jeewantha, Univ. of Ruhuna

18. Chulani Kodikara formely Univ. of Colombo

19. Crystal Baines, Univ. of Peradeniya

20. Dayapala Thiranagma, formerly Univ. of Kelaniya

21. Dhammika Gamage, Univ. of Peradeniya

22. Dhammika Herath, Univ. of Peradeniya

23. Dhammika Jayawardena Univ. of Sri Jayawardenepura

24. Dhanuka Bandara formerly Univ. Of Peradeniya

25. Dilini Hemachandra, Univ. of Peradeniya

26. Dinesha Samararatne Univ. of Colombo

27. Erandika de Silva, Univ. of Jaffna

28. Farzana Haniffa, Univ. of Colombo

29. Fazeeha Azmi, Univ of Peradeniya

30. Ganganee Chamdima Samaraweera, Univ. of Ruhuna

31. H.H.M.T.V.K. Jayasooriya, Univ. of Peradeniya

32. Harshana Rambukwella, formerly The Open University of Sri Lanka

33. Hasini Lecamwasam, Univ. of Peradeniya

34. Hasitha Pathirana Univ. of Kelaniya

35. Hettigamage Sriyananda, The Open University of Sri Lanka (Professor Emeritus)

36. Hiniduma Sunil Senevi, Univ. of Sabaragamuwa

37. Imani Bakmeedeniya, Univ. of Peradeniya

38. Jayadeva Uyangoda, Univ. of Colombo (Professor Emeritus)

39. Janith Wickramasinghe, Univ. of Colombo

40. Jennifer Edama, Univ. of Peradeniya

41. Jithmi Athukorale, Univ. of Peradeniya

42. K.M.Vihangi Semini, Univ. of Peradeniya

43. Kamani Sylva, Univ. of Peradeniya

44. Kanchuka Dharmasiri, Univ. of Peradeniya

45. Kasun Gajasinghe, Univ. of Peradeniya

46. Kaushalya Perera, Univ. of Colombo

47. Kethakie Nagahawatte Univ. of Colombo

48. Krishan Siriwadhana, Univ. of Colombo

49. Krishantha Fedricks, Uni. of Colombo

50. Krishmi Apsara, Univ. of Peradeniya

51. Kumudu Kusum Kumara, formerly Univ. of Colombo

52. L.A.M.Jayasinghe,Univ. Of Peradeniya

53. Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Univ. Of Peradeniya

54. Madhara Karunarathna, Univ. of Peradeniya

55. Maduranga Kalugampitiya, Univ. of Peradeniya

56. Mahendran Thiruvarangan, Univ. of Jaffna

57. Malika Perera, Univ. of Peradeniya

58. M. A. Nuhman. Formerly Univ. of Peradeniya

59. Muditha Dharmasiri: Univ. of Peradeniya

60. Nadeesh de Silva, The Open University of Sri Lanka

61. Nalika Ranathunge, Univ. of Ruhuna

62. Neavis Morais, The Open University of Sri Lanka

63. Nicola Perera, Univ. of Colombo

64. Nilantha Liyanage, Univ. of Ruhuna

65. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, Univ. of Colombo

66. N.Sivakaran, Univ. of Jaffna

67. N. W. Prins, Univ. of Ruhuna

68. Paba Suraweera, Univ. of Peradeniya

69. Pavithra Jayawardena, Univ. of Colombo

70. P. M. Jayaweera Univ. of Peradeniya

71. Prabha Manuratne, Univ. of Kelaniya

72. Prabhath Jayasinghe, University of Colombo

73. Pradeepa Korale Gedara, Univ. of Peradeniya

74. Pradeep Peiris, Univ. of Colombo

75. Priyantha Fonseka Univ. of Peradeniya

76. R.T.Gamalath, Univ. of Peradeniya

77. Ramesh Ramasamy, Univ. of Peradeniya

78. Ramila Usoof, Univ. of Peradeniya

79. Ramindu Perera, The Open University of Sri Lanka

80. Ramya Kumar, Univ. of Jaffna

81. Ranjini Obeyesekere; formerly , Univ. of Peradeniya

82. Ranjit Wijekoon, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya

83. Rupika Rajakaruna, Univ. of Peradeniya

84. Ruth Surenthiraraj, Univ. of Colombo

85. Sabreena Niles, Univ. of Kelaniya

86. Sachithra Edirisinghe, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya

87. Sahan Wanniarachchi,Univ. of Peradeniya

88. Sahani Situbandara, Univ. of Peradeniya

89. Saman Pushpakumara, Univ. of Peradeniya

90. Sasanka Perera, Formerly Univ. of Colombo

91. Sasinindu Patabendige, Univ. of Jaffna

92. Savitri Goonesekere, Univ. of Colombo (Professor Emeritus)

93. Selvaraj Vishvika, Univ. of Peradeniya

94. Shalini Wijerathna,Univ. of Peradeniya

95. Shamala Kumar, Univ. of Peradeniya

96. Sitralega Maunaguru formerly Eastern Univ. Sri Lanka

97. Sivamohan Sumathy, Univ. of Peradeniya

98. Sudesh Mantillake, Univ. of Peradeniya

99. Sumith Chaaminda, Univ. of Colombo

100. Supoorna Kulatunga, Univ. of Peradeniya

101. Suranjith Gunasekara, Univ. of Ruhuna

102. Susantha Rasnayake, Univ. of Peradeniya

103. Susith Siriwardhana, Rajarata Univ. of Sri Lanka

104. Shyamani Hettiarachchi, Univ. of Kelaniya

105. Thiru Kandiah, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya

106. Thushara Kamalrathne, Univ of Peradeniya

107. Udara Rajapaksha, Univ. of Peradeniya

108. Udari Abeysinghe, Univ. of Peradeniya

109. Unnathi Samaraweera,Univ. of Colombo

110. Upul Abeyrathne, Univ. of Peradeniya

111. Varangana Ratwatta, Univ. of Peradeniya

112. Vijaya Kumar, Univ. of Peradeniya (Professor Emeritus)

113. Visakesa Chandrasekaram, Univ. of Colombo

114. Vivimarie Vanderpoorten Medawattegedera, The Open University of Sri Lanka

115. W.M. Rohan Laksiri, Univ. of Ruhuna

116. Yasas Kulasekara, Univ. of Peradeniya


Hit Counter provided by technology news