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Continuation of manpower work


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By Buddhima Padmasiri

During the last two years there were large strikes and protests initiated by workers and trade unions either asking to absorb Manpower workers to the permanent carder base of organisations or asking to abolish the manpower system from our economy. 

Manpower work

“Manpower workers” referrers to workers who are in-sourced by companies through labour recruitment agencies which are generally called Manpower Agencies. It is recognised as a precarious form of employment which is not just an issue our economy faces, but one which is promoted by the global economic conditions promoting labour flexibility. 

The ILO report – Global Employment Trends 2014 identifies precarious forms of employment as a trend in the world economy, which could result in delaying the achievement of development goals and hamper the sustainable progress in poverty reduction. This is mainly to do with the impact of manpower employment, on the job security, equal employment rights, exploitation of labour and on access to benefits, for dignified status of employment and living. 

The Human Resource personnel in companies would not call manpower workers as in-sourced labour but would identify them as out-sourced labour as it is more convenient to avoid responsibility in looking after them. 

According to the labour statistics of 2014, as the processes of recruitment, compensation, performance, evaluation, training, record keeping and compliance of workers are expensive tasks to handle the employers, or the companies tend to hire workers from manpower supplying agencies in order to reduce the costs in human resource management. The information of these workers is not included in the pay roll as they are not permanent staff. 

According to the labour statistics of 2014 nearly half of the manpower workers 45.3% was included in manufacturing industries such as the readymade garments and most other industries located in the EPZs. 

When it comes to the manpower workers in Sri Lanka the common practice at present is that their salaries are paid to them by the recruitment agency - their nominal employer, after deducting the agency’s commission including the costs for the worker’s transportation and food. 

Factories in which the manpower workers contribute in labour are not accountable for them and thus they are normally not entitled to benefits such as medical, insurance and holidays which permanent workers who are providing that same business function of the establishment are entitled to. 

Further, the management of the manpower workers contracts, payments, benefits and work arrangements are given over to manpower agencies. In practice this has become problematic for the workers with the lack of a regulating and monitoring mechanisms on these manpower agencies. 

There are reports of manpower workers complaining of not receiving their EPF/ETF from the manpower agencies.  Through the use of an in-between agency by the companies the employment relationship between the employer and the employee is concealed and distorted. This is creating an employee who the employer is not responsible for.

Around 15 years back manpower workers were hired in filling job vacancies with high turnover and in unappealing conditions. But now, manpower workers are expected to perform jobs within the core business functions of the companies. This is mainly seen in the banking sector in Sri Lanka and in public organisations such as the Electricity Board, Water Board and semi-Government organisations such as the Sri Lanka Telecom. 

In October this year there was a protest by three manpower workers attached to Sri Lanka Telecom by climbing up a transmission tower, demanding that they be adsorbed to the permanent workforce which was an election promise given by the current Government during the presidential election campaign. 

Manpower work in the manufacturing sector

In the manufacturing sector where there is the largest percentage of manpower workers, it is the same as in the other sectors.  Trade unionists or workers identify manpower work as the fundamental issue that labour faces in the EPZs. 

According to a trade union activist based in the Biyagama EPZ, there are around 15-18 manpower agencies at present. Around a decade back there had been only one or two such agencies. It is also reported that every morning at the main bus stand of the Katunayake EPZ, workers gather in large numbers to meet manpower agents who would assign them to various factories within the EPZ. This has been continuing for around two years now and according to a trade union activist based in Katunayake with time this practice has become more organised. 

Some manpower workers are permanently assigned to one factory by the manpower agency and the workers come to the bus stand dressed in a T-shirt with the name of the manpower agency. So the demand for manpower workers within the EPZs are increasing and it is also reported that the majority of the workers joining the EPZ workforces at present are manpower workers.

When we look at the issues associated with manpower work from the perspective of a worker, they have in ways internalised this identity of manpower worker as well and consider them as different from other workers. The discriminatory practices implemented by companies in the treatment of manpower workers have led to discontent among workers and created a rift between permanent and manpower workers. In most instances the take home daily wage of a manpower worker is higher than that of a permanent worker. 

Further, the permanent workers have shown some reluctance to take up issues faced by manpower workers in the workplace, as they do not belong to the permanent cadre base. With rifts occurring between permanent and manpower workers the trade unions face challenges in mobilising labour. 

There are also socio-economic costs of manpower employment perceived in the day today lives of the workers. The economic restrains are hindering their entitlements of equal pay, rights to personal development and achieving a higher standard of decent and dignified living conditions as a citizen of the country. 

Further, the precariousness of their employment has side-lined them from other social benefits. For example, obtaining bank loans are a major issue faced by these workers. According to a female manpower worker in the janitorial industry in the Katunayake EPZ, there were incidents of continuous sexual harassment taking place using the context of job insecurity of the worker to the employer’s advantage. So the job insecurity of these workers do not only lead to economic repercussions but also to discriminatory treatment and also right violations based on the employment status. 

Manpower work in agriculture 

When looking at the agricultural sector, in the agrarian industry manpower work is a new phenomenon compared to that of the EPZ. Hiring workers through manpower agencies is a tactic used by large companies and the multinational companies who are producing fruits to the export market. An agrarian activist from Moneragala noted that these companies have enough work to provide permanent employment to the workers, but due to profitability they prefer hiring workers through manpower agencies. 

One of the main companies using manpower workers is producing bananas to the export market and they have a number of banana plantations in the Uva and Central Provinces. There are reports of various labour law violations conducted by this company such as the workers not receiving EPF/ETF and working under harsh conditions. There are several reports of workers becoming disabled due to various accidents they had faced while working in these plantations. 

Around one-and-a-half weeks back a weekend newspaper reported that this company had suddenly closed its plantation in Kanthale, destroying the banana plants.  A result of this is around 100 manpower workers who had work in this plantation for about four years have just been abandoned with no employment or compensation. This example showcase the vulnerability faced by the workers based on the precariousness of the employment and due to the distorted nature of their relationship with the employer.  

It is in this context that employment of manpower workers has become a labour issue in our country. The most pressing factor is that it is spreading across sectors and even in different ranks of employment. It is also because of these reasons that the trade unions are collectively campaigning for the abolishment of the manpower system in Sri Lanka.

(The writer is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka.)


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