Working conditions varied greatly according to the type and
size of employment activity in the 1980s. The Factories Ordinance
of 1942 established guidelines for industrial safety and
sanitation and made each factory liable to government inspection.
Because this ordinance and other similar legislation has not been
enforced consistently, workers frequently protested their working
conditions. In the 1980s, strikes and boycotts often took place
because of inadequate meals at factories that had their own
lunchrooms or because of the lack of other facilities.
The Factories Ordinance prohibited work for women between
9:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M. In the years after independence, a
further series of laws restricted the employment of women and
children to designated time periods and places. A 1957 law, for
example limited working time for women to nine hours. Other laws
prohibited women and children from working time underground, in
mines, for example.
Unemployment has been a problem since the 1960s, especially
for young people, but the statistics available in 1988 were not
very reliable. Observers estimated that unemployment increased
from around 12 percent of the labor force in the early 1960s to
24 percent in the mid-1970s. Unemployment fell back to around 12
percent in the first few years after the economic liberalization
that began in November 1977, but it was again on the increase in
the mid-1980s. According to official data, in 1987 the labor
force consisted of around 6.2 million persons, of whom 5.4
million, or 87 percent, were gainfully employed, but these
figures understated unemployment, which the Ministry of Finance
estimated at 18 percent in late 1987. All of these figures
excluded persons said to be underemployed or partially employed,
conditions that were prevalent in the rice-farming sector and in
some of the urban-based service activities. The extent of labor
underutilization, was believed to be much greater than indicated
by the statistics for unemployment.
In the mid-1980s, sectors, such as tourism, that were
sensitive to the security situation suffered job losses
(see Sri Lanka - Tourism
, this ch.). Migration to the Middle East, which also
provided jobs in the early 1980s, was also on the decline,
although still of substantial importance. In 1987 observers
estimated that 100,000 Sri Lankans worked and lived in the Middle
East--particularly in the small oil-rich states of the Arabian
Peninsula, where wages for comparable work were much higher than
in Sri Lanka.
A representative index showing changes in the general level
of wages was not available in the late 1980s. Wages were low
compared with those paid in developed countries, even in the
unionized sectors, and incomes were unevenly distributed. Some
indication of wage movements can be gained from the indices of
minimum wage rates. These more than doubled between 1978 and
1986, but inflation probably kept their value little changed in
real terms. The only price index, the Colombo Consumer Price
Index, was based on data gathered in Colombo and was widely
believed to understate inflationary increases, especially for the
lower wage earners. It recorded an increase of 8 percent in 1986.
Although this rate was considerably higher than the 1.5 percent
increase recorded in 1985, it was low compared to the two-digit
rates that prevailed during the 1978-84 period.
Low wages in the formal sector were partially offset by
overtime payments, increments, bonuses, and other incentive
programs, which often added considerable supplements to salaries.
A five-day work week was standard in the 1980s. Sri Lanka had a
large number of public holidays; twenty-four were celebrated in
1985. These included twelve full moon days, which are of
religious significance to Buddhists.
Data as of October 1988