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Occupational prestige further propagates a divisive society


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Occupational prestige is regarded by society as an individual’s social standing based on the occupational position in the hierarchical social structure of an aggregate of occupations. Accordingly, the general public perceive certain occupations highly prestigious while some are comparatively less prestigious and, as a result, we can see clear divisions in the society based on profession and occupation as well. 

By the way, this is in addition to all possible divisions based on race, religion, caste, etc., that lead to many conflicts in the country including 30-year-long civil war in the north and it is hard to imagine any other criterion which remains unexploited for this social stratification.

In the meantime, rather than taking measures to create an environment of equality in terms of pay and other benefits for all occupations as done in many other countries, our politicians also underpin the existing situation as they are unable deal with some powerful trade unions. In particular, occupational divisions make workforces weaker in their bargaining power, and this situation is advantageous for the politicians as they can easily control the workforces suppressing their various demands.

The country earns foreign exchange mainly by exporting tea, garment products and by the remittances of those who work in the Middle East. In fact, the economy of the country is sustained by our female workforce as the majority of employees working in aforementioned industries and services are women. 

Still, our society has failed to give at least the due respect for these female workers for their remarkable service to the country. Instead, women working especially in garments are rudely looked down on by the male society and often subjected to sexual harassments as reported by the media.

 

Occupational discrimination

At a time, I was flying to Dubai, I noticed a Sri Lankan air hostess kindly serving the passengers on board by calling them using honorifics like ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. Next to me seated was a Sri Lankan housemaid travelling to the Middle East and could be easily identified so by her appearance. When her turn came, the hostess rudely asked her in Sinhala what she would like for dinner. You could imagine the difficult situation faced by this young lady in front of many Sri Lankan passengers.

For the particular hostess the status of the passenger should have been immaterial, as all who travelled were their customers, who paid equally for the service provided by the airline. But strangely enough, the occupational status came into play.

At present, the country is facing the problem of brain drain more severely than ever before. As a result, a considerable fraction of investment by the Government for education seems to be in vain. Most of those professionals leaving the country have ample opportunities to work in other countries. 

University academics, researchers, engineers, doctors, accountants, etc. are among those and the country has not been able to utilise these elite for its development. One of the underlying causes for this brain drain is considered to be the lack of freedom to work independently due to professional hypocrisy prevailing in our organisations. Meanwhile, many Sri Lankan professionals who work in foreign countries have performed extraordinarily with some great achievements under better work environments.

Sri Lankan public sector employees are respected by the society in an extraordinary way. Probably, the reason for this scenario is the deep-rooted respect for the public sector in our society. This may be due to the premise that public sector represents the State and public sector employees also should be respected in a similar way the State is respected. 

Further, public sector employees may be considered to be representatives of the State rather than employees who work for the State. As a result, a considerable power distance between the public sector employees and the public is prominent. It is high time we eliminate such unnecessary gaps so that public servants are able to render a more sincere service to the public. 

When executive level services of public sector are taken into account, mere competition to become the most privileged service is the obvious situation rather than finding innovative ways to render an effective and efficient service to the public. 

Our education system has become highly competitive as many try to get the limited opportunities to enter State universities to obtain free tertiary education. In this process, students opt to follow whatever the courses they are selected to follow based on advanced level performance, while only few take the challenge of following their passionate stream. 

Further, many of those who could not enter State universities achieve higher career goals in vast number of novel fields and, more often than not, surpass traditional graduates, for whom the public sector has become the last resort. Still, the society is not willing to accept those non-traditional occupations as prestigious even if they get higher salaries and benefits.

Out of many professionals in our country, everyone does not excel in their professions rendering the expected service to the nation. Regrettably, the mindset of some professionals is so naive as to think that owning an expensive modern vehicle is the way to maintain occupational status. Therefore, we lack professional competitiveness, which could lead to advancement of the country.

 

Inequality in emoluments

We don’t have a fairly equal compensation system for various occupations as available in other countries, so that all can achieve decent living standards.

Those who became professionals through free education demand higher salaries as they think they are the cream of the nation. On the contrary, a talented technician, for instance, who developed on his own, has to work hard to earn sufficient money, while his work is not regarded as high status. As a result, many who possess such extraordinary talents do not engage in such careers, if they expect a fair amount of recognition for their work.

We talk about the scarcity of skilled workers in the country especially in the construction industry. There is a considerable attention on the situation, where many youths after school opt to drive a three-wheeler without following any vocational training. 

The solution, rather stupid, proposed by the Government for the issue was to enforce an age limit for three-wheeler drivers. If carefully examined, the real reasons behind this issue can be identified and according to my personal opinion, there are two reasons; low wage paid to skilled workers and lack of social prestige for such occupations.

In cultures like Japan, even a university professor respects a person who works as a sanitary cleaner by bowing his head down and both are paid nearly equal salaries. Although we are far behind when compared with the situation in developed countries like Japan, we have to think about these vital aspects in order to go ahead as a country.



[The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer. He possesses a BSc. (Engineering) degree and an MBA. This article is based strictly on his personal views and does not reflect the positions he holds in any organisation. He can be contacted via dmtsdissa@yahoo.com.]


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