Jobs and a better future through tourism: women in the Sri Lankan labour market

Friday, 27 September 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


World Tourism Day is commemorated each year on 27 September, and is organised by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) to create awareness on the tourism industry’s positive contribution to destinations. Sri Lanka’s tourism administration too will be having numerous awareness forums to spread positive messages on the impact on the country’s economy, which spreads across numerous other sectors, and most importantly, trickles down to rural grassroots communities i.e. those who need to benefit from the tourism dollar the most. 

This year’s World Tourism Day theme is a very relevant and important theme for Sri Lanka Tourism: ‘Tourism and Jobs: a better future for all’ discusses why tourism’s role in job creation is often undervalued, despite the fact that tourism generates 10% of world jobs, and its vast potential to create decent work. In Sri Lanka, the tourism sector, being the number 3 foreign exchange earner to the country, earns $ 4.4 billion annually with a GDP contribution of 5%.

With a large number of new hotel developments in the pipeline, the requirement for a skilled and semi-skilled workforce will double in the formal sector alone. Currently, it is around 300,000 in the formal sector, with seasonal employment. Every 100 direct jobs created in the local tourism sector would generate additional 140 indirect jobs, making the tourism industry a key contributor to creating employment opportunities in the future. Once considered not so ideal for women, the tourism sector now is joined by many women in resorts and in city hotels, doing various jobs, from chefs to accountants. The ILO estimates that ‘accommodation and restaurants’, together with ‘private sector services’, will create jobs at the fastest rate among all sectors.

Sri Lanka scores highest in South Asia for women’s and human development indicators. At the primary, secondary, and tertiary education levels, more girls are enrolled than boys. While the global literacy rate is 86.3%, Sri Lanka records a female literacy rate of 94.6%. Yet, blatant gender inequalities are seen in the Labour Force Participation (LFP). The absence of many working age women from the informal and formal sectors makes it the 14th largest gender gap in the LFP globally. Women are paid less than men in the public and private sectors. The economically inactive population accounts for about 7.7 million, and of that, a majority – 74.8% – are women.

Analysing the sectoral distribution of female LFP, 31.5% are in agriculture, 26.4% in industry, and 42.1% in the services sectors. The majority in agriculture are who own or operate smallholdings, own home gardens, or wage workers in the plantation sector; they are stuck in poverty at subsistence level. In the industrial sector, while men are mainly in managerial, professional, and technical employment, women are confined to semiskilled work, with long working hours in repetitive work. Exposure to occupational health hazards, job insecurity, and minimal opportunities for upward occupational mobility makes them more vulnerable. 

Investigating female employment status, 1.0% of the female LFP were in the category of employers, 20.0% were public sector employees, 35.9% were private sector employees, 22.6% were own-account workers, and 20.4% were contributing (unpaid) family workers. In the public sector, more women were employed than men. Overall, women workers are disadvantaged by the “glass ceiling” or the “sticky floor” syndrome preventing them from reaching decision-making positions. 

It is evident that horizontal and vertical segregation are crowding women in low-pay, low-skill jobs with restricted upward mobility. The growing economy in the aftermath of a 30 year civil war has not accommodated a gender equitable growth in LFP. Unemployment rates of women are higher than those of men. Labour market dynamics clearly operate on gender norms and stereotypes based on “men’s work” and “women’s work”. 

Despite the high level of education and health standards, there are deep-rooted barriers preventing women securing their due place in LFP. Some of the contributory factors are: household roles and responsibilities fall more on women, leaving less time available for paid employment; marriage can function as a deterrent. Human capital mismatch is also notable, whereby women are not acquiring skills demanded. 

Patriarchal values and gender ideologies that adversely impact women are still predominant in Sri Lanka. Women continue to be treated by policymakers and administrators as “dependent wives” or “supplementary earners” to be used as a labour reserve.

Sri Lanka’s employment rate is low due to low female LFP. To aggravate the already adverse situation, female LFP rates declined from 41% in 2010 and to 36% in 2016. This is an alarming trend, witnessed in the backdrop of an ageing population and optimistic economic growth targets. It is of great interest to uncover the reasons for this phenomenon, which, if not arrested, may lead to serious tendencies to significantly erode women’s economic and social wellbeing. Another area of importance is the “March of the Robots”; it is estimated that 375 million people around the world will be displaced by automation and technology, affecting women first. 

The Government of Sri Lanka strives “to ensure that the growing economic prosperity and the recent benefits in development will filter down to all our people” and “to lay the foundation for long-term sustainable development.” Assumptions that economic policies are gender neutral and market forces-led economic development would automatically deliver equitable growth for men and women are no longer valid for Sri Lanka. Different roles played by men and women in the society can lead to different outcomes, as well as their ability to take advantage of the opportunities. Failure to understand gendered patterns of employment, social norms, and power relations and their implications, will have drastic consequences. The only option for Sri Lanka to achieve economic targets is to ensure equitable LFP for men and women.

The statements such “as women make a major contribution to the economy, they should be given not ‘equality’ but ‘higher priority’,” remains just as mere statements. Inadequate action in arresting gender inequalities in LFP would ultimately leave the island nation with undesirable outcomes, with a possibility of foreign labour filling the gap.

While the recovery of the tourism industry in the informal sector, followed by the formal sector, gives us much hope and opportunities to address the dearth of tourism skills transfer to women specifically, and also the mismatch between tourism skills taught against what the tourism industry needs, new policies are needed to reflect the tourism growth potential to incorporate increased investments in the capabilities of the future human resource requirement. Specific programs are needed to include and encourage women in Sri Lanka to gain ‘future-proof’ tourism skills, so that they can climb up in this industry where skill sets are the most required talent needed to provide world-class service with a Sri Lankan smile. By placing women at the core of the tourism development policy and business environment, our country can move towards growth, equity and sustainability. 

The writer is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau.


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