Labour Reforms in a Time of Great Crisis

Sri Lanka is in the middle of a dire economic crisis. We are witness to the new depths of misery
that the people have been plunged into. Working people are the hardest hit, who have had to
grapple with precarious wages, job insecurity and the devastation of an economic depression.
Despite this perilous situation, the government is proposing labour reforms that threaten to
render the situation of the working classes even more precarious. In his Budget 2023 speech in
November 2022, the President called for reforms “for an export-oriented economy”. Soon
thereafter, Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment Shan Yahampath
elaborated on the impending proposals, pointing to the introduction of “a unified labour code
which will seek to move away from the current employee-friendly labour law system to a
system that strikes a balance between the rights of the employee and the employer.” At the May
Day rally of the UNP, Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment Manusha Nanayakkara
presented a 11-point reform agenda, outlining the principles of the reforms, which proposes to
tilt the balance of power further in favour of employers. Nanayakkara’s proposals, the most
elaborate so far, is at best sketchy, and at worst is a calculated move to weaken the collective
strength of the working population in the formal sector. The message is loud and clear, when
Mr. Nanayakkara prefaces his presentation with, “We still have archaic labour laws, a labour
law which turns away investors.”

On June 14th, at a consultative meeting, Mr. Nanayakkara, reiterated the need for reforms,
necessary, in his view, in some 20-odd areas of existing labour-law. While saying that reforms
are needed in the plantation sector and in the provisions of EPF and ETF, he stresses the
importance of casual labour and the need to turn much of formal labour into casual labour.
Herein lie the dangers of the current reforms.

The proposals are in part framed in the language of social protection, advancing the rights of
the worker in the informal sector. Protection from violence in the workplace for women and
incorporating people with disabilities in the labour force mean little when the overall climate
is steeped in job insecurity and economic precarity. Further, the mantra of increasing women’s
participation in the labour force is designed to be extractive of the labour of women in the face

of diminishing worker-protection.

Sri Lanka’s labour laws, though nothing to marvel at, have historically afforded the worker
some protection from the blatant disregard of their rights. Yet, through fragmentation of the
labour force, outsourcing and casualizing of formal contractual labour, and other
disempowering measures, industrial management has been able to get around these laws. The
bulk of our work force in the formal sector is composed of women. Vulnerable at the best of
times to the vicissitudes of management practices, they had been one of the first casualties of
economic crises. During the COVID pandemic we saw how vulnerable our workers were to
shifting trends of the economy, locally and internationally. Labour laws were flouted; workers
were both left stranded and deemed outcast. At the same time, they were compelled through
coercive consent, to work under trying conditions. This scenario will be formalized through
the proposed reforms. The threat is imminent.

Weakening the contractual bonds between worker and management leads to casualisation,
greater job insecurity and greater exploitation of the worker. Laws surrounding hiring and
termination need to be clear and protect the worker from precarity. At the moment, we have
termination laws that do protect the worker. Relaxing them would pose a dire threat to the
worker’s well-being. There is also talk of flexible working hours. This is most detrimental to
the worker, who under pressure, will be trapped in a complex cycle of coercive and extractive
labour within the casualization of their work; there will be little protection from working hours.
Legal provisions for sick leave, maternity leave and stipulated periods of rest and leisure that
the worker is entitled to will be eroded into. We know that while more than 10 days’ night work
for women is not allowed at garment factories, in practice women are engaged in long hours of
night work, with few safety measures in place.

The proposed reforms are designed to formalize the progressive weakening of labour laws and
further disempower the worker through taking away whatever protection that is in place now.
It is telling that when a meeting of the National Labour Advisory Council, which is composed
of representatives of the state, the employers and trade union representatives of the workers,
was called last month, four unions representing workers in the private sector and not affiliated

to any political parties were left out of the composition. This is a clear indication of how the
government is setting the stage for weakening the representative bodies of the workers, and
thereby render them totally powerless, when reforms are initiated.

The economy of the plantations is on the cusp of change and the Malaiyaha worker is staring
into a future of fragmentation of community, job insecurity, and lack of land. They have been
long fighting for a living wage, and basic citizenship, namely, decent living conditions, safety
at work, the right to land, decent housing and accessible schooling. Nanayakkaras 11-point
proposals say that the government proposes to create “a plantation worker fit for the modern
world of work,” ignoring the current state of gross injustice meted out to the worker in the
plantation sector.

By undermining labour-laws the government hopes to attract investment and boost the
economy. It is a road show put on for the sake of potential investors. But the regime is sadly
out of touch with economic realities. There is a global economic recession. Our economy
shrunk by 12.4% and by 11.5%, in the last quarter of 2022 and first quarter of 2023
respectively. As they stand, labour laws are not the cause of the economic crisis, and reforming
them is not the solution. Rather, the economy is in a state of continued collapse, because of
austerity, lack of job creation policies, and inadequate social protection and relief to the
working people. In the end, we will be left with an irrevocable undermining of the worker’s

As academics, we are obliged to adopt an informed position on something as fundamental as
labour relations. It affects us all. An informed, worker-oriented and people-oriented labour
policy, a policy that provides security to all, and a policy that ensures stability and democratic
practice in production and in the workplace is the need of the hour. Else, we would be looking
to a future of suffering and instability. The already authoritarian government can only become
more authoritarian in the face of imminent social unrest. We must join the forces of democracy
to build a better future for all.


  1. A.M. Navaratna Bandara, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya
  2. Ahilan Kadirgamar, Univ. of Jaffna
  3. A.M.J.H. Amandakoon, Univ. of Peradeniya
  4. Amalka Wijesuriya, Univ. of Ruhuna
  5. Anuruddha Karunarathna, Univ. of Peradeniya
  6. Anushka Kahandagama, formerly Univ. of Colombo
  7. Arjuna Aluwihare, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya
  8. Arjuna Parakrama, Univ. of Peradeniya
  9. Aruni Samarakoon, Univ. of Ruhuna
  10. Athulasiri Samarkoon, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  11. Avanka Fernando, Univ. of Colombo
  12. B.P.B.W. Rathnayake, Univ. of Peradeniya
  13. Barana Jayawardana, Univ. of Peradeniya
  14. Bahirathy J.R, Univ. of Jaffna
  15. Buddhima Padmasiri, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  16. Camena Guneratne, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  17. Chirath Jeewantha, Univ. of Ruhuna
  18. Chulani Kodikara formely Univ. of Colombo
  19. Crystal Baines, Univ. of Peradeniya
  20. Dayapala Thiranagma, formerly Univ. of Kelaniya
  21. Dhammika Gamage, Univ. of Peradeniya
  22. Dhammika Herath, Univ. of Peradeniya
  23. Dhammika Jayawardena Univ. of Sri Jayawardenepura
  24. Dhanuka Bandara formerly Univ. Of Peradeniya
  25. Dilini Hemachandra, Univ. of Peradeniya
  26. Dinesha Samararatne Univ. of Colombo
  27. Erandika de Silva, Univ. of Jaffna
  28. Farzana Haniffa, Univ. of Colombo
  29. Fazeeha Azmi, Univ of Peradeniya
  30. Ganganee Chamdima Samaraweera, Univ. of Ruhuna
  31. H.H.M.T.V.K. Jayasooriya, Univ. of Peradeniya
  32. Harshana Rambukwella, formerly The Open University of Sri Lanka
  33. Hasini Lecamwasam, Univ. of Peradeniya
  34. Hasitha Pathirana Univ. of Kelaniya
  35. Hettigamage Sriyananda, The Open University of Sri Lanka (Professor Emeritus)
  36. Hiniduma Sunil Senevi, Univ. of Sabaragamuwa
  37. Imani Bakmeedeniya, Univ. of Peradeniya
  38. Jayadeva Uyangoda, Univ. of Colombo (Professor Emeritus)
  39. Janith Wickramasinghe, Univ. of Colombo
  40. Jennifer Edama, Univ. of Peradeniya
  41. Jithmi Athukorale, Univ. of Peradeniya
  42. K.M.Vihangi Semini, Univ. of Peradeniya
  43. Kamani Sylva, Univ. of Peradeniya
  44. Kanchuka Dharmasiri, Univ. of Peradeniya
  45. Kasun Gajasinghe, Univ. of Peradeniya
  46. Kaushalya Perera, Univ. of Colombo
  47. Kethakie Nagahawatte Univ. of Colombo
  48. Krishan Siriwadhana, Univ. of Colombo
  49. Krishantha Fedricks, Uni. of Colombo
  50. Krishmi Apsara, Univ. of Peradeniya
  51. Kumudu Kusum Kumara, formerly Univ. of Colombo
  52. L.A.M.Jayasinghe,Univ. Of Peradeniya
  53. Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Univ. Of Peradeniya
  54. Madhara Karunarathna, Univ. of Peradeniya
  55. Maduranga Kalugampitiya, Univ. of Peradeniya
  56. Mahendran Thiruvarangan, Univ. of Jaffna
  57. Malika Perera, Univ. of Peradeniya
  58. M. A. Nuhman. Formerly Univ. of Peradeniya
  59. Muditha Dharmasiri: Univ. of Peradeniya
  60. Nadeesh de Silva, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  61. Nalika Ranathunge, Univ. of Ruhuna
  62. Neavis Morais, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  63. Nicola Perera, Univ. of Colombo
  64. Nilantha Liyanage, Univ. of Ruhuna
  65. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, Univ. of Colombo
  66. N.Sivakaran, Univ. of Jaffna
  67. N. W. Prins, Univ. of Ruhuna
  68. Paba Suraweera, Univ. of Peradeniya
  69. Pavithra Jayawardena, Univ. of Colombo
  70. P. M. Jayaweera Univ. of Peradeniya
  71. Prabha Manuratne, Univ. of Kelaniya
  72. Prabhath Jayasinghe, University of Colombo
  73. Pradeepa Korale Gedara, Univ. of Peradeniya
  74. Pradeep Peiris, Univ. of Colombo
  75. Priyantha Fonseka Univ. of Peradeniya
  76. R.T.Gamalath, Univ. of Peradeniya
  77. Ramesh Ramasamy, Univ. of Peradeniya
  78. Ramila Usoof, Univ. of Peradeniya
  79. Ramindu Perera, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  80. Ramya Kumar, Univ. of Jaffna
  81. Ranjini Obeyesekere; formerly , Univ. of Peradeniya
  82. Ranjit Wijekoon, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya
  83. Rupika Rajakaruna, Univ. of Peradeniya
  84. Ruth Surenthiraraj, Univ. of Colombo
  85. Sabreena Niles, Univ. of Kelaniya
  86. Sachithra Edirisinghe, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya
  87. Sahan Wanniarachchi,Univ. of Peradeniya
  88. Sahani Situbandara, Univ. of Peradeniya
  89. Saman Pushpakumara, Univ. of Peradeniya
  90. Sasanka Perera, Formerly Univ. of Colombo
  91. Sasinindu Patabendige, Univ. of Jaffna
  92. Savitri Goonesekere, Univ. of Colombo (Professor Emeritus)
  93. Selvaraj Vishvika, Univ. of Peradeniya
  94. Shalini Wijerathna,Univ. of Peradeniya
  95. Shamala Kumar, Univ. of Peradeniya
  96. Sitralega Maunaguru formerly Eastern Univ. Sri Lanka
  97. Sivamohan Sumathy, Univ. of Peradeniya
  98. Sudesh Mantillake, Univ. of Peradeniya
  99. Sumith Chaaminda, Univ. of Colombo
  100. Supoorna Kulatunga, Univ. of Peradeniya
  101. Suranjith Gunasekara, Univ. of Ruhuna
  102. Susantha Rasnayake, Univ. of Peradeniya
  103. Susith Siriwardhana, Rajarata Univ. of Sri Lanka
  104. Shyamani Hettiarachchi, Univ. of Kelaniya
  105. Thiru Kandiah, formerly Univ. of Peradeniya
  106. Thushara Kamalrathne, Univ of Peradeniya
  107. Udara Rajapaksha, Univ. of Peradeniya
  108. Udari Abeysinghe, Univ. of Peradeniya
  109. Unnathi Samaraweera,Univ. of Colombo
  110. Upul Abeyrathne, Univ. of Peradeniya
  111. Varangana Ratwatta, Univ. of Peradeniya
  112. Vijaya Kumar, Univ. of Peradeniya (Professor Emeritus)
  113. Visakesa Chandrasekaram, Univ. of Colombo
  114. Vivimarie Vanderpoorten Medawattegedera, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  115. W.M. Rohan Laksiri, Univ. of Ruhuna
  116. Yasas Kulasekara, Univ. of Peradeniya