Employers’ Federation of Ceylon Director General Vajira Ellepola – Pic by Ruwan Walpola
The newly appointed Director General of the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC) Vajira Ellepola, in this exclusive interview with the Daily FT, shares his views in shaping the organisation to address the evolving needs of the world of work.
Ellepola, the 13th Director General to steer the EFC, is an Attorney-at-Law and has been serving the organisation since 2000 in multiple professional capacities. He also had a stint as a State Counsel at the Attorney General’s Department before coming on board at the EFC. The newly appointed EFC Chief also calls for economic freedom, social justice and the rule of law which would inevitably champion better investments and job opportunities for Sri Lanka. Following are the excerpts.
By Randima Attygalle
Q: As a very experienced professional at the EFC how would you define effective leadership?
I believe that any organisation should be led by a leader who understands the objectives of that organisation and is capable of fearlessly pursuing such objectives in the best interest of that organisation and the society at large. A leader should be committed to the objectives and the vision of that particular organisation and should be equipped with required knowledge and skills to steer the organisation in pursuit of its mission. All obstacles will be against you but still you need to face those challenges and take the organisation forward to the best of your ability. Treating all with dignity and putting people first though never compromising on standards and quality is imperative. Such is the kind of leadership that is fundamentally important for overall success.
Q: As the 13th Director General to assume duties at the EFC, how would you envisage taking the organisation to the next level?
Since its inception in 1929, EFC has come a long way from its initial mandate of ‘fire-fighting’. It has evolved to cater to diverse needs of the world of business. In the 1980s EFC introduced its training arm and also the publications in addition to the industry relations and employment law related services it was offering. Then thereafter it looked at the developments which took place and HR was another component it added to its portfolio. Likewise, EFC has kept abreast with evolving needs of the business world.
Now the time has dawned to look at its future. The world of work is changing rapidly and the challenges faced by employers and businesses are on the rise. With globalisation, even the nature of employment has taken a global outlook. Aligned with these changes, EFC’s long-term plans will also have to change and EFC’s role for the future will be on the basis of the world of work driven by technology and sustainability. With that, the EFC will have to be geared to guide and direct the employers in the new world of work, on new working arrangements that will emerge and how a business should transform to reap the best benefits and also the challenges it will face. We will have to guide the employers in a context of the gig economy and platform economy which we eventually need to embrace. Along with these, employment relationships will evolve and workplaces will need to be restructured along with the digital transformation.
The world of work will also have to take stock of social security and EFC should be ever conscious of this as well. The area of social security will be very challenging for all stakeholders; how to restructure it. We did a work study in collaboration with the ILO ACT/EMP and the Institute of Policy Studies. The comparative study looks at the way in which social security could be restructured. The publication also makes proposals for the management of funds, how to expand benefits within the current framework, etc.
Going forward, EFC will also require regional presence to expand its services. A lot of SMEs are concentrated in outstation areas and they make a huge contribution to the country’s economy. That is where the businesses start growing and the EFCs future role should take this aspect into consideration as well.
Q: You are taking over the reins of the EFC in a very challenging landscape of the country. What specific challenges do you identify in terms of EFC’s deliverables to the business community?
This is an unprecedented period of our lifetime I believe – both in the country and beyond. We had to brave the pandemic for two years and here at home it became a double whammy with the economic crisis. The EFC’s ability to deliver was tested during the past few years and we took up the challenge and transformed our units. That was the time our members needed us most, therefore, we had to device a mechanism to reach out to members. We transformed our services in terms of advisory and training through technological advanced systems where our professional staff was able to work from home and deliver. I must say that our members were quite satisfied with the deliverables and even to date our training unit continues those services through online training platforms.
During the last financial year we have performed well in our training unit and to give more muscle to our training we have reached out to the ILO ACT/EMP for technical support. We are also in the process of developing our ICT units to deliver training more effectively. Making legal representations in courts however, has been challenging to us in these trying times and it is something which is beyond our control mainly due to transport issues. It has certainly been a challenging period for EFC but the organisation has been constantly evolving to deliver better.
Today we are faced with a situation where the sustainability of businesses is tested. This will create a social and economic impact and we have a role to play to mitigate this because sustainability of businesses and job security go hand in hand. EFC has always believed in economic freedom, social justice and the rule of law. Therefore despite the challenges, we are taking our mandate forward within this framework.
Q: Over its nearly 100-year journey EFC had evolved from a purely central body looking after employer’s interests to playing a more proactive social role as well. Ex: lobbying for labour reform, addressing the concerns of the youth and those with disabilities. How do you wish to give more muscle to these functions as EFC new chief?
Our Disability Network, now into its 23rd year, headed by Manique Gooneratne has been rendering a yeoman service. The training which is being conducted under her guidance has enabled people with disabilities to seek productive employment. Once they are trained there is also a job placement mechanism within our membership. This unit also carries out disability access audits. I’d be quite pleased to give the fullest support for this unit to flourish.
In 2016 EFC launched the Employers’ Network of Youth Initiatives (ENNYI) supported by the ILO to offer internships to undergraduates from state universities in EFC’s member companies. We have a lot to do here because the unemployment rate among local graduates is still alarmingly high. Ideally we should have a national network covering all the state universities connecting with the private sector. It is essential that we integrate these graduates to the system through public-private partnerships without leaving anyone behind.
I think it is imperative that job seekers are exposed to the world of work in their academic curriculum and for this there should be a mandatory internship period where undergraduates could explore both local and overseas opportunities. We also need to engage in ongoing studies about the job market both locally and internationally to identify the jobs that are most in demand. Today there is a lucrative job market in Japan for caregivers, and in few other countries for nursing. There are also many opportunities in the ICT sector.
Skills Passport initiative by EFC in collaboration with the ILO and TVEC of the Ministry of Skills Development gives the opportunity for employees to obtain a skills passport which includes details of his/her skills, experience and qualifications gained. It is an instrument which is beneficial for both the employee and the employer.
In terms of the social responsibility of the EFC, it rests broadly on our advocacy and lobbying role which we bring out by mooting legal reforms as well. Legal reforms are essential if we are to achieve economic freedom and EFC has been lobbying for such reforms and will continue to do so in national interest. Right now we are deliberating on relaxation of night work restrictions for women because we are now in a digital world where work from home is possible and if these restrictions continue to exist, even work from home would be restricted for women.
Today ICT related industries offer better jobs and it entails night shifts. In my view we must not deprive a certain segment of our population of that opportunity. Women should be able to decide whether they should engage in night work or not. But if the law restricts them, that is a serious injustice towards one segment of our workforce.
We are also discussing the possibility of giving opportunities and bringing laws for part-time employment. That is very essential even for university students. In foreign countries a lot of students engage in part time work and they finance their own higher studies and hence they do not further burden their parents. I think we need to give this opportunity to our students as well. We need to integrate more people to the job market which requires more investments and in turn, it will benefit both employers and employees. We also intend to review other relevant laws to create an enabling environment to enhance the scope of job opportunities available to the workforce.
It is also important that we reposition our social security systems like in other countries so that the mechanism in place will address most aspects of social protection including unemployment benefits which will in turn reflect positively on the sustainability of business.
If we are to achieve this, we require political will and conviction and the commitment of other stakeholders.
Q:The SME sector of Sri Lanka which plays a huge role in the national economy is facing unprecedented challenges. Is there an immediate plan for the EFC to address the needs of this sector, especially in these turbulent times?
The blow on the SMEs has been enormous and their struggle to sustain themselves in trying circumstances has been daunting. Most unfortunately, quite a number of them are on the verge of shutting down. This continuous crisis has placed them beyond their means. This is an area where job-loss has also been most acute.
From the EFCs point of view, the best we could help salvage SMEs is by offering assistance to restructure such entities; to offer guidance to operate on a different model to brave this period and for them to be able to bounce back. For these purposes, as I explained before, the regional presence of the EFC is vital. We are certainly looking at our options of regional partnerships through regional business chambers.
Q: Are any regional collaborations being planned with other employer bodies in the region for the EFC to share experience and knowledge and thereby cater to a wider segment going beyond national boundaries?
EFC is a member of the South Asian Forum of Employers (SAFE), the Confederation of Asia-Pacific Employers (CAPE) and the International organisation of Employers (IOE) based in Geneva. We have constant dialogues with these associations. Our most recent discussion with SAFE was on the challenges and skills in the context of migration and how to map the skills and competencies which are recognised across the region. In December this year ILO Asia Pacific regional meeting will be held in Singapore which will give an opportunity for knowledge sharing and exchange of best practices for employer organisations in the Asia-Pacific region. So we are certainly having ongoing conversations with regional and international employer bodies to widen our scope.
Q: Today our country is put on trial like never before. Despite the turbulence, what are Sri Lanka’s greatest strengths in your view?
Ours is a country which is diverse and dynamic in every aspect – be it the climate, natural resources, people or skills. We have always been in an envious position even in terms of the strategic positioning of the island. Within a very small region the resources are abundant in our country and any investor can look forward to having great business operations here. Sri Lankans are very fast learners and are highly adaptable. We are a very resilient nation which we have demonstrated throughout history and continue to demonstrate.
For all our resources – both natural and human, to reach the best potential, strong and visionary political will and commitment is a must. Today the world’s focus is on Asia and we Sri Lankans need to move fast if we are to compete with other destinations in the region and maintain that competitive edge. We need to give investors more confidence to expand and generate more jobs in Sri Lanka.
Q: Finally as a senior professional what are the thoughts you would like to share with fellow Sri Lankan professionals in fostering a positive mindset and forging hope to help salvage our island from this dark chapter?
Our professionals would always like to serve this country first but there is a question about having a conducive environment for performance. This country is losing a lot of talent and knowledge right now. We see our people performing at the highest levels in other countries, contributing so much to those nations. We have the capacity and the capability and it’s only a matter of creating a suitable environment to retain that talent.
It’s imperative that we create a country in which we can take pride in and live in dignity, for people to feel that they can have a reasonably comfortable life in their own country. Ours is such a beautiful land with friendly and hospitable people and they deserve every opportunity to lead a quality life with a sense of belongingness. Today we are at a decisive juncture of our country’s history and we have got an opportunity to revisit the mistakes of the past and learn from them and restructure the entire system of governance and bureaucracy. There is a duty cast on each and every one of us to reposition our island for the world to proclaim that ‘this is the place to be’ in the whole of Asia.