Sun, Nov 05, 2017 - Page 15 News List

A case of too many tuk-tuks: Sri Lanka faces labor crisis

Young men looking to earn quick cash have swollen the ranks of autorickshaw drivers to 1.2 million while the government has been forced to import foreign workers to support booming sectors

By Amal Jayasinghe  /  AFP, COLOMBO

An autorickshaw drives past a row of parked three-wheeled taxis on a road in Colombo on July 7.

Photo: AFP

Asitha Udaya Priyantha has found the dream job: The 22-year-old is already his own boss, cruising Sri Lanka’s streets in his autorickshaw, earning good money on his own time.

However, this is not what the government wants its young people doing as 1 million jobs in booming sectors, such as construction, go unfilled and businesses look abroad for laborers to get work done.

It is a puzzling scenario for Sri Lanka, which for decades has exported labor to the Middle East and reaped the foreign exchange flowing back to a country impoverished from years of war.

However, now, amid an economic upswing, the government is trying to lure them back, offering competitive wages and other sweeteners to get workers into blue-collar jobs at home, where they are needed.

Policymakers are also being urged to tap another source of underutilized labor: the glut of tuk-tuk drivers on Sri Lanka’s roads.

There are 1.2 million tuk-tuk drivers in Sri Lanka — far more than is needed for a small island of 21 million, according to the union representing tuk-tuk drivers.

The United Three Wheel Drivers and Industry Association said most of the newcomers swelling the already oversaturated ranks are young men keen to make a quick buck.

“The trend is for young people to start driving a three-wheeler no sooner they get a license,” association secretary Rohana Perera said. “If we continue like this we will not have young people to do any other job in the country.”

School leavers only need 50,000 rupees (US$333) for a down payment on a three-wheeler, money they can raise easily in loans from family, he added.

Priyantha was attracted to the profession after growing tired of the low pay and long hours at his regular job in a photography studio.

“I saved some money and bought a three-wheeler, and now I am my own boss,” Priyantha said. “I have more freedom and I earn twice as much.”

The union wants the government to increase the minimum working age for rickshaw drivers from 18 to 35 to curb the flow of new recruits flooding the overcrowded roads.

There have also been calls for an import ban on trishaws from neighboring India to curtail supply.

The Professional Three Wheel Drivers’ Association blames Sri Lanka’s lack of vocational training for young graduates getting behind the wheel instead of taking up better paying jobs in underfilled sectors.

“Unless there are radical changes to prepare school leavers for gainful employment, they will take a shortcut and start driving three-wheelers,” the association’s Nishantha Perera said.

The drain of young workers into tuk-tuks compounds a labor crisis for the government, which has overseen robust economic growth since the 37-year civil war ended in 2009.

The construction industry, undergoing an unprecedented post-war boom, has been forced to turn to India, Bangladesh and Nepal for the 400,000 workers it needs to build the hotels and condominiums springing up in Sri Lanka’s cities.

Advertisements aimed at Nepali workers placed in industry magazines promote US$450-a-month salaries in addition to annual return airfares and health and accident insurance.

Some construction companies are giving away motorcycles and small cars as incentives to retain skilled workers who commit to two to five years of service.

Meanwhile, the government hopes rising wages and economic optimism will encourage some of the estimated 2 million Sri Lankan workers abroad to return home and enjoy the good times.

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