The Government last week approved doubling compensation that a company has to pay when a worker is terminated, effectively increasing the ceiling rate from Rs.1.25 million to Rs.2.5 million. This is a positive move as it gives employees and dependents better reliance, at least financially. However, there are still many issues of monitoring, and accountability as well as evolving new responses to job security, especially due to COVID-19, to consider.
For example, worker health insurance is not mandatory, especially for gig work that is increasingly attracting people to the informal sector, and even maternity regulations can be unevenly implemented. Many factories, especially in provinces, have limited monitoring of safety standards.
COVID-19 has also sparked discussions on income protection and unemployment insurance, which is hardly found in Sri Lanka. Drawing all these different elements into a comprehensive legal framework is extremely challenging, especially given the rapidly evolving nature of work. One of the biggest facilitators to this bleak situation is that existing provisions are not sufficient in the current context, especially with changes taking place in industries and technology.
Sri Lanka has the Factories Ordinance, which details safety measures to be taken by employers, but it is only applicable to factories; and the Shop and Office Employees Act covers maternity benefits to employees, while the Industrial Disputes Act covers terminations and related issues. The bulk of this legislation was drafted out before 1954, creating a huge need to update laws and create a framework for reporting and investigating accidents as well as awarding compensation and other assistance.
The Labour Ministry has been formulating fresh legislation since 2010 but this is yet to be passed into law, and it is unclear how much more time will elapse before it is implemented. Another desperate need is to have a formal reporting system to capture work-related injuries and diseases.
Work-related incidents of this nature are severely underreported in Sri Lanka with some estimates putting it as low as 1% of the actual number. Inadequacy of information about occupational hazards is one of the major obstacles to prevent occupational fatalities and diseases effectively.
However, with the available data, the Health Ministry estimates that nearly 15% of the total admissions due to injuries at the Colombo National Hospital annually are work-related. As many as 60% of Sri Lanka’s workforce is employed in the informal sector and as such do not have even the limited resources of the formal sector to report on transgressions.
So hazy are the links that most work-related diseases are not even traced back to their origins and the environment is not improved for future benefit. Clearly, Government monitoring bodies need to go beyond performing physical inspections and monitor worksites more competently and engage in data collection of injuries. Another important point is that backlogged legislation needs to be passed as soon as possible with a national policy that covers both the public and private sectors to provide more impetus.
However, these measures should not be a burden to employers and proper incentives have to be provided so they are maintained voluntarily. While tacking workplace injuries and diseases is a challenging one, its importance cannot be overstated. It deals directly with saving human lives and improving the economy. Surely the eight million or so workforce of Sri Lanka deserves that.