Work is one of the most defining aspects of our lives. We participate in and contribute to society through our capacity to work. However, the unsettling reality in most developing countries is that large sections of their populations are forced to live without consistent or adequate means of income. As Sri Lankans, we pride ourselves in graduating to "Middle-Income-Country" status and are hopeful of unlocking the spending power of our expanding middleclass. However, it is premature to celebrate the growth of this "middle," as a significant proportion of this group may hover just above the poverty line, and engage in informal and precarious work that exacerbate their multiple vulnerabilities. A class-based analysis of labour market characteristics in Sri Lanka, published by the Centre for Poverty Analysis in 2014, shows concern about labour market inequality in Sri Lanka. The study finds that individuals from relatively affluent economic classes engage in employment at higher rates in comparison to their counterparts from underprivileged segments. The highest level of unemployment is recorded among the poorest, living under $1.25/day, which indicates their exclusion from the labour market. Nearly 70% of the poor engage in informal income generating activities that offer low wages and no formal social security. Vulnerable employment, namely, jobs in the agricultural sector, casual wage labour, own-account work and contributions to family activities is significantly linked to lower economic classes. In South Asia, the poor and the near poor vis-à-vis middle-class workers face notable disadvantages in accessing better quality jobs. Aside from a small group of informal workers among richer classes, the majority are compensated based on minimum wage, currently at Rs. 10,000/month or Rs. 400/day (National Minimum Wage of Workers Act), which is hopelessly insufficient. In light of recent living wage estimates (by salary.lk)—Rs. 29,600/month for an individual, and Rs. 67,800 for a family in Sri Lanka, it is necessary to recalibrate the minimum wage to one that could afford the current cost of living. Moreover, whether low-quality informal and irregular employment or own-account work in harsh conditions, low productivity and low and uncertain remuneration can even be considered "employment" in an "inclusive" growth model is a matter that requires further discussion and reflection. The findings presented above advocate assistance to retrenched workers in lower economic classes that would allow them to access stable and well paid jobs. Context-specific Job Guarantee Programmes (JGP) (such as India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and Argentina’s Plan Jefas y Jefas) can widen the access to better employment. Any attempt to achieve full, productive and decent employment must acknowledge the crucial fact that the informal economy provides means of livelihood to those who are excluded from the formal labour market. Although precarious in nature, informal employment is a survival and coping strategy of a majority of workers in developing nations who are cut off from regular wage employment (due to the lack of productive characteristics and discriminatory social and institutional norms). This demands action (public, private or mixed) that enables informal workers to acquire secure and adequate livelihoods that provide a level of reward for work that is adequate to fulfill basic needs such as food, shelter and education. This minimum standard however, should be re-evaluated to reflect realistic and current standards of living rather than expecting people to survive on a paltry sum in subhuman conditions. There is ample empirical evidence to support the claim that educational attainment is a key driver of secure employment. This study finds that tertiary education is an elusive dream for many living under or just above the poverty line, and low educational attainment is strongly linked with employment in the informal sector in Sri Lanka. Additionally, young, poor workers have significant difficulties in accessing higher education opportunities and gainful employment options. In the Sri Lankan context, access to primary and secondary education is less of an obstacle than access to higher education, particularly for low-income groups, although it is the quality of public education that is a matter of greater concern. The diminishing quality of public education is invariably associated with the marketisation of education and the lack of government investment in education. This trend leaves behind students from low-income groups who are unable to afford the extra help that is offered by the market. Moreover, the emergence of private higher education institutions, which boast affiliations with prestigious foreign universities, charge exorbitant fees for degree programmes but offer alternatives to individuals from wealthier families who are either unable or unwilling to attend local universities. Given the wide assortment of education options at their disposal and social networks that open avenues for employment, youth from relatively affluent families get a head start in the labour force, whereas their poor counterparts are gradually robbed of their rights to education and work. Thus, measures that improve the quality of education and access to higher education and skills training for the poor and near poor must be supplemented with structural reforms concerning the marketisation of education. As "ending poverty" ranks high in the proposed Sustainable Development agenda as well as our national policy agenda, it is important to conceptualise policy responses keeping in mind the well-established link between poverty reduction, education and gainful employment. An integrated approach to poverty reduction that gets at the heart of structural inequalities that trap people in poverty is much needed as Sri Lankan policymakers gear up to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals.
Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty-related development issues. CEPA believes that poverty is an injustice that should be overcome and that overcoming poverty involves changing policies and practices nationally and internationally, as well as working with people in poverty.
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