What Really is a ‘Better Job’ in the Sri Lankan Context?

IPS recently hosted a discussion on the Sri Lankan perspectives of a World Bank report titled ‘More and Better Jobs in South Asia’ and brought to light many issues related to the Sri Lankan job market. Among the diverse range of views that surfaced, the debate on “what really is a better job?” was an interesting one that emerged.

The report reveals that South Asia has been successful in creating 800,000 jobs per month during the period 2000-2010. It further underscores the fact that the quality of jobs for all categories of workers has increased as reflected by higher wages and lower rates of poverty. Yet, the viewpoints expressed by several panelists, particularly those actively engaged in the labour market – representatives from employers and employees – brought out the need to rethink how a “better job” is defined in the Sri Lankan context.


The report uses higher wages (for wage earners) and lower poverty rates (for self-employed) as the key indicators to measure a “better job”. Using these, the report concludes that “better jobs” are held by regular wage or salaried workers in industry and services sectors. However, as emphasized by several experts in the panel discussion, it is a debatable issue as to whether a “better job” could merely be defined as a “higher paying job” in the Sri Lankan context.


Higher wages and lower poverty rates undoubtedly quantifies a “better job” but the discussions highlighted the fact that higher wages are not the only criteria which determine the Sri Lankan perception of a “better job”. It was asserted that job satisfaction and job security are of equal importance to a worker as the monetary appeal of a job.


This idea could be stretched to elucidate the current trend in the labour market of a strong preference of youth for government jobs. Majority of Sri Lankan youth seem to prefer a job in the public sector. Their risk-averse nature, combined with job security and guarantee of a pension, seem to be the driving forces behind this preference. According to the Central Bank Annual Report (2011), the nominal wage rate index of the formal private sector increased by 32% in 2010 while that for government employees increased only by 3.3% in the same year. Although the wages of the private sector increased more than the public sector, the desire for employment in the private sector has not increased. So, it becomes questionable if higher paying private sector jobs are considered “better” than lower paying public sector jobs.


The comments made by a panelist at the event, Leslie Devendra brought in a new dimension for what is defined as a “better job”. He stated that better jobs had to do with dignity of work, freedom of association, and freedom of workers which are voiced through trade unions. “90% of workplaces don’t have trade unions. Even if wages are higher in those places, I won’t agree that they are better jobs”, argued Leslie Devendra, a respected trade union leader.


Hence, from the point of view of an employee, a better job seems to have more to do with social protection rather than just a salary. A panelist at the event, Suresh De Mel, a well-known entrepreneur in Southern Sri Lanka, stated that the private sector was challenged due to the lack of labour. He noted that, regardless of attempts by entrepreneurs to encourage more labour in the provincial economies into the private sector by providing good wages, incentives for attendance, and transport services, it was impossible to get workers to come to work regularly. “I have never been able to fill my factories with workers”, remarked De Mel. There is a growing concern as to why the private sector that generally pays a higher wage than the public sector seems to be experiencing a shortage of labour if the perception of a “better job” was determined merely by higher wages.


Renowned private sector leader, Sunil Wijesinha, also a panelist at the event, asserted that employee involvement schemes such as the Japanese Kaizen and Quality Circles seemed to work extremely well with factory workers typically labelled as “blue collar workers”. He stated that factory workers were motivated by the idea of getting involved with more than just the manufacturing process and were inspired by the idea of making a bigger contribution to the firm. He emphasized that it was not just wages that motivated them to stay. “Work should be to make people feel like their brains are also used, not just their hands”, he remarked.


The comments made by the diverse panel of speakers at the discussion strengthened the idea that the Sri Lankan perception of a “better job” was not defined purely by monetary terms alone and must be expanded to include concepts like job security and job satisfaction. Yet, the subjective and qualitative nature of these alternative definitions of a “better job” limits the ability to accurately measure them. Therefore, the World Bank report cannot be faulted for it. But, in considering how stakeholders in the labour market interpret the findings of this report, it must be borne in mind that for Sri Lanka, “better jobs” may not always be determined by just the wages people earn. For the Sri Lankan worker other things clearly matter too.