ILO report discusses how tech will transform Sri Lanka’s key sectors

By Uwin Lugoda

The world is about to enter it’s forth industrial revolution and Sri Lanka will be no exception. Every year, new technologies are developed worldwide, changing the way industries function in developing countries. In this light, “The Future of Work in Sri Lanka: Shaping technology transitions for a brighter future” is a research that endeavours to fill the gap on how these technologies will impact the world of work.

The report was done by TANDEM Research and released on 13 March at the Trace Expat City, Colombo 1. The event was graced by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – who was the Chief Guest of the event – and Minister of Labour and Trade Union Relations Ravindra Samaraweera.

“There is so much of technology out there and everything is changing, and we in Sri Lanka have to be ready. What we are seeing is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Wickremesinghe.

The report was presented while keeping up with the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Decent Work Agenda and Mission of Social Justice, with recommendations for policy suggestions in education, skilling for future jobs, technology, and innovations. This year also marked 100 years of the ILO’s Mission of Social Justice.

“While the impact of technology on the future of work is a global phenomenon, it is critical to reflect on and analyse these changes through a local lens. This report investigates the implications of Sri Lanka’s unique local political, legal, and socioeconomic structures against an unsettled global backdrop, and is a vital contribution to understanding the challenges and opportunities in the world of work for the next two decades,” commented ILO Country Director for Sri Lanka and Maldives Simrin Singh.

The research was presented by Dr. Vikrom Mathur of TANDEM Research and has taken into consideration aspects such as automations and job displacement, employment conditions (with an emphasis on labour welfare and social protection), and labour inequities.

While compiling the report, the debate surrounding the unprecedented job loss due to the development of new and innovative technologies that cancel out the need for human interaction was also taken into account. It stated that the impact automation will have on labour will depend on a number of factors, ranging from technological feasibility, cost-effectiveness, and the availability of digital, physical, and social infrastructure.

Minister of Labour Samaraweera said: “The bottom line is that throughout history, technological advances have always led to rising productivity and living standards, and they have always created more jobs than they destroyed. This is not to understate the pain that disruption can cause for individuals; we owe it to them to work hard to create pathways forward, so all can participate in the evolving economy.”

Dr. Mathur stated that the report gives out propositions on how to shape a better future of work for Sri Lanka – to better incorporate different sectors to the upcoming changes.

Workers have been leaving the agriculture sector due to many challenges they face – whether environmental or socioeconomic. The report states that the integration and deployment of new technologies will most likely lead to greater commercialisation of agriculture; hence, reducing the dependency on agricultural labour without causing widespread displacement.

The plantation sector is another area suffering from a massive labour shortage. This is due to the dwindling livelihood opportunities and changing youth aspirations. Automation is needed for different stages of the production process, so that the industry can cope with the prevailing labour shortage.
According to the report, some of the challenges faced in the introduction of automation to the industry are geographical and climate concerns like topsoil erosion which impacts high altitude plantations and delicacy of the tea picking process.

One of the biggest challenges faced when adopting technologies into this sector is its investment and implementation. The latest technologies in the industry require a high rate of investment; therefore, despite the rapid growth of the sector globally, the integration of it in Sri Lanka will be slow.
The report emphasises that the involvement of new technology will not help with the labour shortage because it can easily be filled by the inflow of migrant workers.

Logistics is one of the most crucial sectors when it comes to Sri Lanka’s National Export Strategy. Therefore, increasing its demand and subsequent expansion of the sector are likely to generate more jobs in the coming five years. However, when new technologies and smart management solutions are introduced to logistics, it is likely to reduce the demand for permanent labour, as well as cause the displacements from various occupations such as supervisory and managerial positions.

Speaking on the IT industry, the report states that the demand for IT – mainly jobs in data analysis and cyber security – will increase in demand. However, entry-level and mid-skill-level jobs in IT, business process outsourcing (BPO), and financial sectors are to face automation-led displacements.
Feasibility and availability of skilled labour would be the factors taken into consideration when these new technologies are integrated by local firms. Reskilling and upskilling are sustained efforts required to keep up with the rapid changes in technology.

Due to the growth in e-commerce, which enables new markets to emerge, there will be a high possibility of Sri Lankan youths losing their jobs. The rise in e-commerce is expected to match this development through technological feasibility and low investments. This is expected to generate a demand for new jobs, especially in the lower-skilled levels. However, according to the report, even these lower-skilled jobs are at risk of being automated.

The adaption of technology is set to separate the manufacturing sector. Technologies like industrial automations and artificial intelligence are currently at its budding phase in Sri Lanka’s manufacturing sector. The increasing dependence in the automation of the sector due increased labour productivity can reduce the need for permanent labour jobs.

The report went on to say that jobs that do not require hand-eye coordination or critical thinking are the most likely to be automated. This will include niche capital and technology-intensive industries, such as food processing.

Public Sector
Despite having great potential for automation, the report predicts that the public sector will be shielded from technological disruption. This is due to the fact that Sri Lanka’s public sector is expensive in both size and influence, and without a targeted effort, it is highly unlikely to be automated. E-governance strategies will also depend on educational and training efforts, along with the perceptions on new technologies and bureaucracy.

This landmark report is a result of multiple consultations with the ILO in Sri Lanka’s tripartite constituents, youth, platform workers, entrepreneurs, exporters, academics, and development practitioners. It provides the basis for anticipatory policy frameworks and to spur social dialogue to ensure that no one will be left behind in the world of work in Sri Lanka.

Photos Indika Handuwala