By The Feminist Collective for Economic Justice
Economic hardships in the last few months have aggravated, making the class divide more visible than ever in Sri Lanka. The Government is preoccupied with establishing ‘stability’ through State repression.
Since Ranil Wickremesinghe took oath as the President of Sri Lanka, the crackdown on student union leaders, activists, artists, and several citizen protesters who were involved in the Aragalaya people’s struggle has intensified. More than 3,300 activists are reported to have been arrested with around 1,250 still in custody.
Ignoring its own promise of a moratorium on the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the Government has used it to detain student leaders. Repression and economic policy creating greater instability for working-class women and low-income families seems to be the order of the day.
Parliament passed an interim Budget introducing severe austerity measures and privatisation of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Direct taxes further increased as the Value-Added Tax (VAT) was amended from 12% to 15%. This was while inflation of essential items reached unimaginable levels.
Proposals in the interim Budget for social security increased existing State support for pregnant mothers (by Rs. 2,500), monthly allowances for Samurdhi (Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 3,100), elders (Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 5,000), and low-income disabled persons and low-income kidney disease patients (Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 7,500). In addition, Rs. 5,000 is to be granted to 61,000 low-income families. These measures are monumentally inadequate even to afford necessities considering the prevailing levels of inflation.
Food inflation has increased to a staggering 93.7% in August and transport inflation to 148.6%. Even before the crisis was felt, Sri Lanka was spending only 3.2% of GDP (2015) on social protection, which is the lowest allocation in Asia and is also lower than the 3.9% average spent by middle-income countries.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a family of four needs a monthly minimum of Rs. 100,000 to survive. Furthermore, three in 10 households (6.26 million people) are food insecure, of which 65,600 are severely food insecure.
Estimates by UNICEF show that 2.3 million Sri Lankan children urgently need humanitarian assistance. The Chairperson of the Presidential Committee on National Food Security revealed that 100,000 families were malnourished and of this number, 75,000 were presently struggling to avoid starvation induced death. Around 40,000 families are receiving food or nutrition via saline.
The interim Budget did not reflect the severity of the situation or the urgency of support required. It also failed to provide for reviving the agriculture sector that is facing challenges after the doomed fertiliser ban and fuel crisis.
Even the education sector, after the long interruptions to schooling and severe malnutrition evident among children, did not receive adequate allocations. The Budget did not respond to the fact that large sections of the population have more recently fallen into poverty.
A Staff-Level Agreement (SLA) was reached with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to support the country’s economic policies with a $ 2.9 billion 48-month arrangement under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF). However, the policy recommendations include strict austerity measures with little relief for the people. Although it refers to raising social spending, it is within a framework of cash transfers and targeted support which is inadequate to address the crisis.
Repeated demands by women’s groups for universal social security, particularly during an economic crisis, are yet again being ignored. The harsh anti-people programme of the interim Budget and the insensitivity of the IMF recommendations are extremely concerning as the burden, without a doubt, returns to women, the working people, and the poor in Sri Lanka.
A ‘cost recovery pricing’ mechanism for fuel and electricity is included in the IMF recommendations. In August, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) raised electricity tariffs for the first time in nine years. Those who consume the least – under 30 units a month – will see the greatest increase in rates by 264% (30-60 units by 211%). This means that half of the domestic electricity consumers – 3.14 million households who use fewer than 60 units a month – will face the greatest increase in electricity bills.
The electricity tariff hikes contradict the principles of energy justice, with women bearing the biggest burden of these increases. Cost-cutting measures in households usually fall on women. Energy saving efforts in the kitchen affect nutrition, with households cooking fewer meals.
The gendered impact of energy poverty will constrain a generation of women and girls, strip them of time, and inhibit their access to education and the workforce. Energy precarity will increase among households that had already accumulated unpaid electricity bills during the Covid-19 lockdowns and push them deeper into a cycle of debt. Although Sri Lanka has enjoyed almost 100% electrification, the tariff changes will plunge households into darkness.
The kerosene price hike from Rs. 87 to Rs. 340 had a particularly debilitating impact on the rural economy. Fishermen are unable to use boats and engage in their livelihood activities because of kerosene shortages and price hikes. Small-scale farmers rely on kerosene to run water pumps for cultivation. The increase in the price of kerosene will prevent farmers from engaging in production, thereby impacting food security.
Unravelling educational outcomes
Almost half of all children in Sri Lanka (42%) were living in poverty before the economic crisis, according to the UN, and a third of children under four were underweight or stunted. The Ministry of Education acknowledged that the education sector had entered a difficult phase.
Facing the economic crisis is more challenging than the Covid-19 situation when learning loss had already reached 54% (2020) and 88% (2021). The economic crisis has contributed to decreased student enrollments.
According to Save the Children, one in four students can go hungry because of Government funding cuts to the school meals programme. Haphazard school closures leave children hungry because the free school meals are a lifeline for one million of the country’s most vulnerable children.
Children in two out of five households were not able to continue with online learning because families could not afford internet charges or smartphones. The educational gains of high literacy levels and girls’ education, achieved through a free public system, are unravelling amidst the crisis.
Exploitation of women’s paid/unpaid labour
The Government has seen the need to rush new laws in the midst of the crisis. Cabinet approved changes to the Shop and Office Employees Act of 1954 which will legally allow women to work at night in business process outsourcing firms.
The minimum age for migrant workers has been lowered from 25 to 21 years and the restrictions preventing the migration of women with young children (below two years) and requiring a mandatory family background report to be obtained before migration have been removed.
The Ministry of Labour is working on amending existing laws to allow children (16 and above) to work. In the six months up to June 2022, 777 of the rural poor – four times more than in 2021 – have left Sri Lanka daily as migrant workers. While labour laws are made more flexible, working conditions remain exploitative and precarious.
In 2020, 114 Sri Lankan workers died in their workplaces and no measures have been put in place to respond to these dangers. Instead, many rural poor are being pushed to migrate. It is concerning that women and children are the first to be targeted under labour law reform, without proper provisions for safe working conditions, equal pay, and mechanisms for caregiving.
Jobs with better working conditions for women, like public sector employment, are cut under austerity measures. A circular was issued to facilitate State employees to take no-pay leave to work abroad for a maximum of five years and send mandatory monthly foreign remittances home.
The Government does not have a plan to generate jobs locally. Instead, it is encouraging migration of labour as an easy means of earning foreign exchange, with little regard for workers’ and their families’ well-being. Furthermore, the interim Budget proposes to reduce the retirement age of State employees from 65 to 60, thereby pushing people into retirement and compelling them to find their own financial security.
The IMF recommends relaxing regulations to increase female labour force participation. These changes to women’s labour are often accompanied by liberal arguments about offering more ‘choice’ to women. It fails, and perhaps deliberately refuses, to contend with the fact that work outside the home is usually in horrific working conditions and for abysmal wages.
This ‘choice’ of work is nothing more than the Government responding to the economic situation with deliberate policies that expose women to exploitation and discrimination. Unpaid care work and social reproduction are also left out of the conversation on women’s contributions to the economy. Women are forced to engage in paid labour to find cash income to fulfil essential needs, over and above the domestic work they are already engaged in.
In effect, female labour force participation without recognition of care work contribution is an imposition of a double burden on women. The need for cash income, and thereby the burden on women, is aggravated in the context of increased prices of non-food essentials such as fuel and energy. Women have also taken on the burden of engaging in paid and unpaid labour when opportunities for daily wage work have dwindled for men.
A research study done in two DS Divisions (Karaitivu and Samanthurai) in the Ampara District on the gender impact of the Covid-19 crisis showed that 46% of women said that their care work in the home had increased due to the pandemic and 37.5% had reduced food consumption due to lack of income.
It is alarming that for three years women have been carrying the burden of managing the survival of the household, and now are being pushed into harsher working conditions in the name of structural reforms.
End to repression and austerity
As we approach the last quarter of a tumultuous year, the depth of the economic crisis and its devastating effects are plainly evident. The dual strategy of austerity and repression deployed by the Sri Lankan Government has inflicted more suffering on people and has dashed our hopes for recovery.
The Government must immediately halt the intimidation, harassment, baseless investigations, and arrests of activists for exercising their right to dissent. The draconian PTA that has unjustly detained young people must be repealed and should not be replaced by another law.
Nutrition and food sovereignty must be prioritised by implementing an islandwide food distribution system and existing systems of Sathosa, Samurdhi, and cooperatives should be expanded. As the number of people living in precarious situations and in poverty is increasing, moving towards universal programmes for food and social security provisions is vital. Any attempt at targeted programmes amidst widespread deprivation will lead to discontent and social unrest.
Subsidies for all households of fuel, electricity, water, kerosene, LPG, and essential food items must not be dismantled. Urgent support and subsidies must reach farmers and fisherfolk to avert the deepening food crisis. Furthermore, it is essential to ensure the schools’ mid-day meal programme is well-resourced and implemented with immediate effect.
Assistance programmes (referral, support, and services) to address starvation, homelessness, destitution, and domestic violence must be set up by the Government immediately and State officials must be directed to provide these services without discrimination, prejudice, or judgement. As the increase in sexual and gender-based violence is evident, State and non-State services should ensure support services including shelters for women and children. Responses must be timely and have a survivor-centred approach.
Finally, exploitative labour law reforms should cease with immediate effect. The State and the IMF cannot pass the burden of paying the country’s debt onto women and children and push them into unsafe and exploitative working conditions.
A living wage that accounts for the sharp rise in the cost of living must be introduced across all sectors. A mechanism to address workers’ complaints of unfair and exploitative labour practices must be introduced.
Increased burden of unpaid care work must be recognised and provision made for mechanisms for daycare, elderly care, meal distribution, and psychosocial assistance to relieve extreme pressures faced by women to ensure their continued contribution through paid and unpaid labour to the country supports the growth of the country.
(The Feminist Collective for Economic Justice is a collective of feminist economists, scholars, feminist activists, university students, and lawyers, working in different parts of Sri Lanka, who came together to analyse and propose recommendations to the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka.)