Q: What is the outlook for jobs and employment in the medium term? And how should the authorities address the prospect of rising unemployment?

A: The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has affected Sri Lankan businesses across all sectors except perhaps agriculture, which has faced a minimal impact. Export oriented industries (many of which survive on revenue earned from the USA and Europe), tourism, apparel and labourers who rely on remittances from abroad are suddenly faced with grim prospects, in terms of expenditure, profitability and ultimately employee retention.

Without a consistent flow of revenue, several businesses will be compelled to make tough decisions and it is likely that our unemployment rate of 4.5% will increase in the short term.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that companies can operate on a lean workforce with many employees working from home. Others like drivers and support staff have unfortunately become inconsequential to continuing business operations. It has become apparent to many that office spaces are redundant and meetings via Zoom calls are more effective than those that have needed physical spaces.

As corporate leaders gradually realise that a leaner staff cadre does not affect productivity, it is possible this too will exacerbate unemployment.

As such, the government must undertake two separate missions: firstly, it must look to maintain the current level of employment through competent legal and policy frameworks; and secondly, it has to encourage enterprises to generate new opportunities for employment.


Q: What lessons have we – the business community – learnt from this crisis?

A: Firstly, COVID-19 has shattered the myth of economies being resilient and solid enough to endure any hardship. Giants like the US and Europe are still reeling from the pandemic and the very fundamentals of economics have been challenged.

We have learned painfully that global economies haven’t maintained the right priorities. Several global powerhouses like China, the US and the EU have been so focussed on expanding their economic clout that they’ve neglected social, environmental and cultural wellbeing. FTAs and schemes like the One Belt One Road Initiative saw massive economic expansion but not one of them could build the necessary infrastructures to weather COVID-19.

Unsustainable practices have dominated the globe and now businesses across the world do not know how to continue with an interrupted supply chain. In Sri Lanka in particular, we have learned that making all exports and industries reliant on only a few markets is a bad idea.

The business community will have to shift to non-conventional local manufacturing and help steer the economy away from an import reliant economy. I say non-conventional as we need to rely less on foreign labour remittances, rubber and tea, and diversify. COVID-19 has given us both a wake-up call and an opportunity to realign the national economy, and chart a new course.

Q: How do you see the ‘new normal’ for business panning out?

A: Was there ever a ‘normal’ before COVID-19? The past century has seen several unsustainable and condemnable actions in the name of ‘the economy.’ There are four pillars we should build on – namely the economic, social, environmental and cultural pillars. We’ve prioritised the economy for so long that we neglected the other three whereas all are equally important.

Social pillars (which encompass health and housing) and environmental pillars (they preserve and sustain our natural resources) have been ignored in the name of economic expansion. Even last year’s Easter Sunday attacks can be attributed to having neglected the cultural pillar, which allowed extremism. Therefore, was there ever a ‘normal’?

The new normal should champion these four fronts. In a strange way, this virus has compelled us to value the other pillars; families have been under lockdown, we have reviewed our social and cultural values, our economies are now learning the need for sustainability, and politicians are realising the importance of public health and poverty eradication.

RESILIENCE AMID TURBULENT TIMES

Q: How do you view Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response so far? What are the pros and cons? A: From a pro-perspective, I admire the quick decision making and immediate lockdown measures, which saved many lives and put us on the right track. Moreover, the involvement of the military in this process provided additional validation for the…

SECURITY WILL BECOME MAINSTREAM

Q: How do you view Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response so far? What are the pros and cons? A: Compared to other nations, Sri Lanka, has undoubtedly made great progress. Among the positives are that people are confident, safe and more settled in facing the pandemic. If the situation had gone out of control at the early…

TOUGH DECISIONS ON EMPLOYMENT

Q: What is the outlook for jobs and employment in the medium term? And how should the authorities address the prospect of rising unemployment? A: The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has affected Sri Lankan businesses across all sectors except perhaps agriculture, which has faced a minimal impact. Export oriented industries (many of which survive on revenue earned…

FOCUS ON ‘GLOBAL ORIENTATION’

Q: What is the outlook for jobs and employment in the medium term? And how should the authorities address the prospect of rising unemployment? A: While Sri Lanka has a low number of social safety nets for permanently vulnerable people such as the poor, disabled and elderly, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for a social net…

ECONOMIC ACTIVITIES MUST GO ON

Q: How do you view Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response so far? What are the pros and cons? A: At this juncture, COVID-19 seems invincible. However, while the global pandemic is unprecedented, Sri Lanka’s response has been a great success especially in managing the prevalence of infections. The positive factors are the synergy between important stakeholders in driving…

TRAVEL BUBBLES MAY BE A BOON

Q: How do you see the ‘new normal’ for business panning out? A: The new (hopefully temporary) normal is all about uncertainty given that we are in uncharted territory. There are two phases: the pre-vaccine phase supported by increasingly effective cures like remdesivir and the post-vaccine era. The post-vaccine era should mean that we return to…

PRINTING MONEY IS A NECESSARY EVIL

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LESSONS IN CRISIS PREPAREDNESS

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PUBLIC HEALTH IS A PRIORITY

Q: In your view, how should the authorities balance the twin imperatives of safety and the economy? A: The COVID-19 pandemic has put us in a situation where we have to either prioritise public health and in turn sacrifice economic output, or prioritise the economy and sacrifice public health. Although this is unprecedented, public health…

THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

Q: How do you view Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response so far? What are the pros and cons? A: I think we have responded very well to the crisis as the lockdown has been effective from mid-March. In an unprecedented  situation like this, there is no blueprint for safeguarding the health of the nation while simultaneously keeping…

A COMMENDABLE PERFORMANCE

Q: How do you view Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response so far? What are the pros and cons? A: The response from the government has been strong and consistent. Hard decisions were taken at certain junctures; and these decisions were consistently and swiftly implemented. As the crisis is unprecedented globally, there has been no blueprint or tried…

PARADIGM SHIFT IN THE BIZ MINDSET

Q: What is the outlook for jobs and employment in the medium term? And how should the authorities address the prospect of rising unemployment? A: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, several key industrial sectors including tourism, travel, hospitality, manufacturing and exports have been affected. This is not withstanding the numerous SMEs and micro-enterprise segments, as…
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