Business

The rare window of opportunity for pension reform


By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The inconvenient truth about pensions is that they are costly. Governments across the world struggle with striking a balance between the dual objectives of pension adequacy and financial sustainability.

Looking at Sri Lanka’s government sector pension, it is glaringly obvious that the costs associated with this scheme are exorbitant. According to the 2018 Central Bank report, the Government has incurred Rs. 194.5 billion as pension payments. This was a little over 9% of recurrent expenditure for the year, for a group of around 623,000 pensioners. Let that sink in – 9% of recurrent expenditure for less than 3% of the population. In comparison, the Samurdhi allocation for 2018 is only 2% of recurrent expenditure, and goes to around 1.4 million households.

The costs associated with pensions will only grow, as has been highlighted by the Central Bank. The Census of Public and Semi Government Sector Employees shows that 77% of our government sector employees are between 30-55 years. This means that over the next 30 years, the Government will see an additional 800,000-odd individuals moving into retirement, and in a nutshell, this is a problem which will only snowball into something larger.

Quick fixes?

The government sector pension is non-contributory – the entire burden of payment is shouldered by the Government – and given our fiscal position, this is an area where reform should be seriously considered.

Reforming pensions is tricky – it is a highly sensitive topic, and if executed badly, could mean that the Government still spends a similar amount on the same group of people, but through social transfers for the impoverished elderly as opposed to through a government-funded pension. There are however, some soft reforms which would be easy to implement, and have a positive impact on our pension system for both pensioners and the Government.

A quick fix would be to increase retirement ages…Sri Lanka’s demographics are such that we have a rapidly ageing population, with rising levels of life expectancy. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing, but it means the Government and policymakers need to think about how people will spend their old age.

Future generations will be able to work for longer periods of time, and it is vital that this ability is reflected in our legal systems. Increasing retirement ages has been widely adopted across OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries which also have similar demographics to Sri Lanka. From the perspective of pension payments, this will slightly ease the burden placed on the system right now. To ensure that this reform doesn’t place undue shock on employees in older age brackets, who have planned to retire in the next few years, this is a reform that can typically be introduced to younger cohorts of employees.

It is impossible to introduce sustainable reform for the elderly without looking at reforms needed throughout an individual’s life cycle. Your quality of life as an aged person is determined by the life you led in your youth. Employment, health, disposable income, financial literacy, marriage status, and a myriad of other factors affect how an individual experiences their retirement.

Opportunity for greater reform

Right now, there exists a window of opportunity for the Government to holistically address old age security. This window exists for three reasons. The first is that all government employees hired after 1 January 2015 do not fall into the current non-contributory pension scheme. They are in a kind of no man’s land where they have been promised a pension, but the details of what this pension benefit will be like has not been made clear. It is not an enviable position to be in, but in making this adjustment, the Government has created a window for pension reform. As it is clear that these employees do not fall into the current non-contributory pension, the Government can bring in a new contributory pension scheme for the government system, where both the Government and the government sector employee contributes.

It will take decades to move out of the current commitment the Government has to those in the non-contributory scheme, but at least we can be certain that decades from now, the pressure that the non-contributory exerts on the national budget will be reduced.

The second reason there is a window of opportunity is because the Government has promised to introduce a national pension scheme. The name implies that this would be a scheme that goes beyond the government sector, encompassing the private sector and the informal sector. As the private sector has coverage through EPF and ETF schemes, the widely uncovered informal sector will pose a challenge to those designing this pension scheme. However, the positive of this is that the Government has made a very public commitment to wide pension reform, under which reform of the government sector will be included.

The third reason for this window of opportunity is the recently discussed labour law reforms. Sri Lanka has a multitude of labour laws, and the reform proposed is to unify these laws under one common labour law. During this process, there will also be room for amendments to be made to the more archaic aspects of our labour laws – hopefully to ensure that our laws reflect a drastically different working experience than was there a hundred years ago. There is scope for reforms such as increasing the age of retirement and making flexible/part-time work more attractive – which would be a step towards attracting more women into the workforce. With female life expectancy, more women in work means more women with agency and greater financial stability in their old age.

What does all of this mean?

Labour reform and pension reform are inextricably linked to each other. The fact that discussions for reform in both labour law and pensions are ongoing is serendipitous – now the focus of work should be to ensure that reform has financial sustainability as well as adequacy at the forefront.

(Aneetha Warusavitarana is a Research Analyst at the Advocata Institute. Her research focuses on public policy and governance. She can be contacted at aneetha@advocata.org or @AneethaW on Twitter. Advocata is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. They conduct research, provide commentary, and hold events to promote sound policy ideas compatible with a free society in Sri Lanka)