National Policy Conference on Women’s Access to Decent Work

31 October 2023

The Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) recently conducted a thought-provoking discussion aimed at improving women’s access to decent work in Sri Lanka. The event, titled the ‘National Policy Conference on Women’s Access to Decent Work,’ was organised in collaboration with the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) and Co-Impact and took place at the Dr Saman Kelegama Auditorium, IPS.

Dr Nisha Arunatilake, study leader and Director of Research, IPS initiated the event by delving into the critical issues surrounding female labor force participation (FLFP), decent work, and childcare in Sri Lanka. Despite the efforts of successive governments, FLFP in Sri Lanka has remained stagnant at around 34% for the last decade. Dr Arunatilake emphasised the need to move beyond merely increasing FLFP and focus on improving the quality of employment for women.

The concept of “decent work” refers to jobs that offer dignity, equality, fair wages, and safe working conditions. Household and care responsibilities often hinder women from engaging in the workforce. Challenges such as labour demand, legal barriers, costs, and a scarcity of high-quality job opportunities further restrict women’s access to decent work, with fewer than 30% of jobs in Sri Lanka meeting these criteria.

IPS Research Fellow Dr Lakmini Fernando presented key findings from a recent IPS study, ‘Women’s Access to Decent Work in Sri Lanka: Addressing Context-Specific Barriers.’ The study revealed the following key insights:

  • Despite improvements in education, fertility, and income, Sri Lanka’s female labor force participation remains low, standing at 32% in 2021 compared to the global average of 46%.
  • Access to decent work is even more limited for Sri Lankan women, with only 17% of employed women in the formal sector compared to 25% of men in 2021.
  • Highly educated and English-proficient women have a better chance of finding decent work.
  • Households with male formal workers or elderly females show increased women’s participation in decent jobs.

The IPS study proposed several recommendations to enhance women’s participation in decent work. These recommendations include encouraging investments in high-paying, quality job sectors like ICT, promoting changes in gender role perceptions through education and media, and raising awareness against social biases that place the burden of household and care duties on women.

The event featured two interactive panel discussions. The first panel discussion moderated by Dr Nisha Arunatilake, delved into creating decent jobs for women, emphasizing the importance of moving beyond traditional sectors, strengthening legislation to make the workplace a safe place, and investmenting in infrastructure for work-life balance.

The second panel discussion, moderated by Prof. Dileni Gunawardena, Chair Professor of Economics, University of Peradeniya, Research Fellow PEP focused on women’s access to decent work and childcare. The discussion stressed the shared responsibility of the state and private sector in providing quality childcare facilities, with discussions on the need for parental leave, a flexible work environment, and the importance of normalising paternity leave.

The event also addressed the progress in implementing the National Policy on Early Childhood Care and Development and the National Policy for Child Day Care Centers, highlighting the importance of effective policy strategies. These policies aim to create a supportive environment for children and improve women’s access to quality work, thereby contributing to economic growth.

The conference provided a comprehensive overview of the challenges and opportunities for improving women’s access to decent work and underscored the role of policy improvements in achieving this goal. The event served as a significant step toward promoting a more inclusive and equitable labour force in Sri Lanka.

The panelists of the first panel discussion on creating decent jobs for women included Mr Neelakanth Wanninayake, Executive Director, Industrial Service Bureau; Ms Gayani de Alwis, Vice Chairperson Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC) and Ms Aarthy Arunasalam, Program Manager – Gender and Economics Inclusion, IFC Sri Lanka.

The panelists of the second panel discussion on women’s access to decent work and childcare, comprised Ms Shanika Malalgoda, Head of Planning & Information Division, National Child Protection Authority; Ms Gayni Gomes, Project Manager, Women’s Centre and Ms Thanuja Jayawardene, General Manager – Women’s Empowerment, Advocacy and Code of Conduct, MAS Holdings.