News update

Technology and the future of work

The impact of emerging technologies, automation, artificial intelligence, data and digitization on the future of work was discussed at a meeting in Sri Lanka, hosted by the ILO Country Office and Tandem Research, of Goa, India.

News | Colombo, Sri Lanka | 19 September 2018
A multi- stakeholder Technology Foresight Group (TFG) was convened by Tandem Research for the purpose of this workshop, with representatives from the public and private sectors, trade and employer unions, industry experts, academia and policy makers. As part of the study on the Future of Work in Sri Lanka, the workshop aimed to move beyond universalizing narratives on technology and labour markets to interrogate instead specific interactions and impacts on Sri Lankan labour markets, mediated through local social, cultural and economic systems.
Group picture of the participants

The TFG served as elite informants, developing propositions about the likely impact of emerging technologies on Sri Lankan labour markets over the next 5-10 years. The workshop was structured around four sessions, exploring- Sri Lanka’s particular labour market context and current technology trends; the likelihood of automation and displacement in different sectors; the ways in which automation and digitization could disrupt employment conditions; and the differential impact of emerging technologies on different social groups and their economic participation.

In the first session, economist Ramani Gunatilaka highlighted the main characteristics of Sri Lankan labour markets. While economic growth in Sri Lanka has been stable with an increase in output and productivity across sectors (between 2004- 2016), job growth has largely been in the informal sector, which constitutes over 60% of employment. High youth unemployment, coupled with women’s low labour force participation rate (LFPR) and a rapidly aging population were also identified as relevant labour market trends. Kanishka Weerasinghe, director general of the Employer’s Federation of Ceylon (EFC), discussed the changing landscape of work and skill requirements in light of technological adoption and the current skilling mismatch taxing Sri Lanka’s labour markets.

The second session on automation and displacement considered the extent of technological adoption and job displacement across different sectors and occupations. Chinthi Weerasinghe, Vice President of VirtusaPolaris, questioned the perception of technology as labour displacing and evaluated the current level and nature of automation in Sri Lanka. The IT sector along with garment manufacturing were identified as the main areas where automation adoption was likely to occur over the next decade. However, participants pointed out that technological adoption would be contingent on various factors beyond technological feasibility, including the comparative cost of labour and socio- cultural norms.

The third session focused on employment conditions, emphasizing the changing nature of employment in the digital economy, and the need for labour and social protection to evolve along with these transformations. Helani Galpaya, the CEO of LIRNE Asia, examined the impact of the platform economy on employment relations, indicating that traditional standards of employment were no longer adequate to address employment needs.

Yusra Aziz Eliyas, the founder of PodiJobs, Sri Lanka’s first freelancing platform, introduced the final session, assessing the impact of digitization and automation on existing labour market inequities. Gender disparities, along with the deterioration of wages and working conditions in the agricultural sector were highlighted as the main challenges for Sri Lanka. While enhanced connectivity and access to digital technologies could partially alleviate these concerns, participants recognized the need for targeted policy measures to ensure the equitable distribution of technology gains.

The workshop was successful in generating propositions around the crucial themes of displacement, employment conditions and labour market inequities. In the next phase, the research team will conduct targeted field work to better understand and articulate the propositions around the Future of Work in Sri Lanka.