Working worker-laws | Sunday Observer

Working worker-laws

28 May, 2023

The labour laws of this country are to be overhauled? That will be the day. Labour has been an albatross around the necks of most employers says a Labour Department spokesperson. Now, he says, there would be a unified labour code that would bring all the different statutes that constitute the so called labour law in this country and coalesce them under one rubric.

This would have been normally scandalous to the ears of most ‘progressive’ politicians but now most of them seem to be chastened after the economic debacle of a century that took place last year, forcing the country into a debt default and a simultaneous meltdown of the likes people had never seen.

Though the late N.M Perera, Edmund Samarakkody and A. E. Goonesinghe may be turning in their graves, that is not relevant because those folk were living in a utopia that was never achievable.

It seems that our labour laws are to be streamlined though some people think that it’s in fact a steamrolling that’s set to happen when the scalpel is taken to so-called labour legislation that has helped some of the most egregious employee truants to play truant and take advantage of it, all in the name of worker rights.

Today it’s virtually impossible to get rid of workers unless a company is winding-up and going bankrupt. But of course workers are being paid wages they cannot live off of and that is due to the economic meltdown too. But the economic meltdown is due to the fact that we didn’t have enough entrepreneurship and foreign investment, at least in part.

So in a chicken and egg situation we have to determine that labour laws that favored the employee created the meltdown which in turn created a situation that made matters infinitely more difficult for labour all over the country.

Now this situation is to be addressed and labour laws are to be less employee friendly, which may of course seem counter intuitive at a time labour is battling high-inflation and are unable to make ends meet because of, as stated earlier, the dire repercussions of the economic meltdown of last year.

But it’s not counter-intuitive to have labour legislation that improves the economy in a sense and the contemplated moves are in that sense not counter progressive even though they can be interpreted as such on the surface.


Today it’s impossible almost to sack an employee who willfully exploits the leeway given to him or her by labour laws that are pro-employee when it comes to termination. But unionists would argue that these laws are necessary because otherwise management would be sacking labourers and middle-rung employees at the drop of a hat.

One would have thought however that a positive outlook towards labour laws would have spawned a conscientious labour-force. But this has hardly been the case. The laws have been exploited to an extent that we have acquired a reputation as being a country that’s impossible to set up shop in.

At least foreign investors were able to make use of the free-trade zones or the investment zones so called in which the labour laws are in suspension, but the local employers did not have such choices and have been battling the raft of labour laws that seem to give employers nightmares.

Employees can only be sacked for disciplinary reasons without a severance package, and that means employers have their hands tied in even the most difficult of situations in which they have to make the organisation productive or otherwise face bankruptcy.

Who benefits when a business goes under? It’s not the business of union bosses one may think, but then again if a company is forced to shut down is the union going to employ the workforce that is forced out of their jobs?

Today, the recourse for labour is such that employees who are terminated have two or three simultaneous options to take and sometimes could virtually force their way back to employment.

This is not a situation that’s good for business development but the laws are laws and the enforcers hands are tied.

The reform of these laws has been resisted the way reforms of subsidised living has been resisted. But it’s a year in which people have virtually taken lying down the 66 percent increase in their electricity bills.

This is the paradox. It’s the subsidies that cripple the economy to a great extent because they entail high-taxes and are a ban on growth. So there is no gain without pain and this is something that has been understood by the mass of people at least to some extent after events of last year forced them to reckon with the fact that there are no free lunches.

There are other factors no doubt that can cripple an economy, and corruption is one of them, but excessive subsidies are a form of corruption as well. It’s because politicians dangle carrots before the masses before elections making it difficult for people to resist the temptation of being taken-in by offers that the country cannot afford.

If the system is to be overhauled the bitter pill must be swallowed, but it must be remembered that it’s the private sector that’s the engine of growth.

The State sector would always be sluggish and would virtually be subsidised despite the best of intentions. Governments rely on the ingenuity of entrepreneurs to bail them out. But these folk in turn have to ensure that ‘worker rights’ are respected to a degree that’s not applicable anywhere else in the world except perhaps Cuba.

The laws are also archaic says Labour Ministry sources who have pointed out that the laws for all their progressiveness are not female-friendly in the slightest.

Employers are not allowed to have females on the night shift and this not only impedes business in this day and age but also acts as a drag on morale as far as the female workforce is concerned, exacerbating the gender gap.

Even though employers have been progressive here of their own accord than most countries with Sri Lanka having a better record of equal pay for equal work, gender-wise, than the United States of America for instance, the laws of the country have kept females in second string status due to the shift-work prohibitions and so on.


Of course there could be howls of protest at the new turn of events because the employees are an entrenched ‘vested interest’ or they become one because of the labour laws that are rather employee friendly even allowing for the fact that it’s the managements that often have the upper hand because he who pays the piper calls the tune.

But even given the fact that managements still manage to retain command over labour and run roughshod over them in some instances, it’s also the reality that nobody had looked at the woes of businesses that are struggling to get by in distinctly business-unfriendly times such as these when taxes are sky high and the costs of utilities such as electricity especially for industrial consumption is so dear, that it’s becoming prohibitive.

Some may say that this is part of the IMF bitter pill — that progressive labour laws that have stood the test of time for decades are being rolled back giving way to exploitation of labour once more.

But the IMF whether it’s involved or not has nothing to do with the fact that for decades well-meaning individuals have been advocating that labour laws be reconsidered in this country because termination for instance is a nightmare, even in the most clear of circumstances in which certain employees just cannot be continued without hurting the business.

Either you keep the employees at high cost and stagnate the company or you get rid of them and give the organisation a fighting chance so that many more employees can be incorporated into the payroll rather than the select few that seem to hold everybody hostage by insisting on utopian ‘worker rights.’