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As elections loom closer the Government is proceeding with plans to recruit 20,000 new graduates into the public sector, with many more jobs likely to be handed out in the coming months. Over the years successive governments have increased recruitment, usually with no focus on the actual needs of the public sector, simply to meet youth aspirations and gather votes. 

Sri Lanka’s State and State-Owned Enterprise workers, excluding the military, grew a whopping 30% to 1.1 million from 2006 to 2016, according to a survey by the Census and Statistics Department released last year. The survey, which includes the Central Government, Provincial Government, statutory bodies and State enterprises, showed that not only is the public sector inflated, but it often made recruitments to areas of little use to the people.  

The Census Department report said it did not include the three services but included workers in the Ministry of Defence. According to 2015 data released by the Finance Ministry, Sri Lanka had 272,000 in various branches of the military and 84,000 policemen. Assuming the numbers were broadly unchanged, Sri Lanka could have a total public sector burden of 1,474,000 State workers compared to 1,316,863 (Finance Ministry 2015) or 1,365,820 (Central Bank 2015), indicating that the issue has not abated under the present Government. 

Finance Ministry data showed that 88,000 so-called ‘Development Officers’ had been recruited to the State service between 2005 and 2015 but only managed 11,000 medical officers, 33,000 nurses and 3,579 midwives. 

Politically-driven recruitment is clearly a major problem within the public service and continues to be a fiscal liability, especially since each year around 30,000 workers become pensioners. According to Finance Ministry data, the number of pensioners grew from 430,153 in 2006 to 564,472 in 2015, increasing the burden on workers.  

There are also questions about their qualifications as about 17.8% of State workers or 196,128 have not passed their Ordinary Level examination. Despite successive Governments recruiting enthusiastically, there are no scientific studies to evaluate the need for and productivity of these public servants. There is also no attention being paid to qualitatively improve areas such as higher education where increases in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects that are essential to Sri Lanka’s economic and social growth. 

Sri Lanka also has another challenge in terms of the geographic spread of the private sector. The preference of most Sri Lankans is to work in well-paying service related jobs, which are overwhelmingly in the Western Province, or in Colombo. Anyone aspiring to work in these sectors, either has to move to the city where cost of living is high and inconveniences such as traffic is a daily difficulty, or they have to live in semi-urban areas where the most lucrative and socially acceptable job is in the public sector. 

The continued preference for public sector jobs is also in job security, pension and other perks such as car permits. Comparatively the private sector does not provide as attractive opportunities. This is also why, many of them prefer alternative livelihood such as tuk-tuk driving to working in industries. Many also remain in agriculture, even though its productivity is less.     

In a country with a limited population, freeing up public sector workers might be the best recruitment tool for the private sector. It is also one of the best ways to control public expenditure and shore up fiscal consolidation.


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