Sri Lanka has been a member of the ILO from the 28th June 1948 and has been well served by the organization which honoured the country by having its first ever Asian Regional Conference in 1950 in our island. The Eighth Regional Conference was also held ere in 1975. In fact, Colombo was once considered as a possible location for its Asia Pacific Regional office but the government of that era, we were told, was not anxious to have the office here, a mistake which the country has lived to regret!
I have personal recollection of the early years of the ILO office in Sri Lanka and the immediate benefit it brought to the Ministry of Labour, the Employers Federation and the Unions. The ILO as the only tripartite UN body has always had a special place in society and the social partners in Sri Lanka have from time to time utilized the presence of the ILO in Colombo to obtain guidance on issues of vital importance to them.
When the office was set up the Director was Mr. Stanley Taylor, whose love for the country has brought him to Colombo for the celebrations. The earliest local staff were Ayoma de Silva and Joyce Perera, who having remained throughout, have now become institutions within the office and are seen as part and parcel of the office which must easily rate as one of the best in terms of its efficiency and support to the social partners.
The present Director has followed the traditions set by past Directors and been very approachable and always dedicated to helping the country, sometimes even when the country itself did not understand what was good for it. A case in point is the ratification of the Core convention no.87 on Freedom of Association which the country did not ratify for many years after it had already ratified the more specific Convention no 98 which not only guaranteed the freedom but took it to the next step of guaranteeing the promotion of Collective Bargaining, which perhaps has not been fully implemented due to many obstacles and challenges in Sri Lanka to voluntary bargaining.
The ILO office has been able to grant technical assistance and to facilitate the grant of financial support from many bi-lateral donors to Sri Lanka and some of these grants have been given to employers and others to worker organizations.
These are apart from the technical and other support given to government. Some years ago there was an ILO supported initiative for the restructuring of the Labour Ministry and some of the recommended steps have been implemented to the great benefit of the Ministry and the public.
The assistance given to promote technical skills in the country have been enormous. The ILO has also made many efforts to create good social security systems in Sri Lanka.
The ‘Dudley Seers Report’ which was presented to the government as “ Matching Employment Opportunities and Expectations” in 1971 is a brilliant piece of analytical work on the social tensions which were building up, and which blew up while the report was still being prepared.
The report was an inter agency effort co-ordinated by the ILO, and was the first pilot study in Asia under the World Employment Programme. The recommendations which were made and which the ILO suggested should be debated further could still be regarded as valid many years later and crying for examination and dialogue among stakeholders!
The ILO in Colombo has also been very supportive of the Employers Federation (EFC) which as the sole member of the International Organization of Employers based in Geneva, is the only organization entitled to be recognized for ILO assistance as an employers’ organization. It is perhaps worth noting that three successive Chief Executives of this organization have held professional positions in the ILO after they had left the EFC. Some years back the ILO supported the indexing of the documentation at the EFC which was a great boon to the organization and the secretariat in particular.
Congratulations to the ILO Colombo on reaching milestone in its existence and we hope that it will continue to be of service to Sri Lanka for many years to come.