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Sri Lanka women workers challenged by family attitude, transport, harassment

ECONOMYNEXT – Though increasing numbers of women wanted and were working in super markets and nursing homes they faced many challenges ranging from family attitudes to harassment at the workplace and on the road, a study has found.

Women were working in shifts and night work in areas such as supermarkets and hospitals the Institute of Policy Studies, a Colombo-base think tank said after a study based on a sample of professional and semi-skilled workers.

“In the absence of standard work opportunities, non-standard work had important benefits for both women themselves and the wider society,” the IPS said.

“It empowered women and also helped them to support their families financially in spheres such as education of children, health needs of parents and building houses.”

However they had to face barriers in the form of family attitudes (nursing homes were preferred to supermarkets) and they also faced harassment in public transport and in the workplace.

Critics say some problems that are not solved by the community (read market) may persist due to government regulations and state failure.

In fast growing East Asian nations like Vietnam and Cambodia scooters are ubiquitous and smart brand new ones can around 1,000 dollars but used ones can be bought 500 dollars or less. In Sri Lanka the government taxes scooters heavily and they cost close to 300,000 rupees.

Sri Lanka’s rupee is also depreciated by the central bank under so called Real Effective Exchange Rate targeting to destroy real wages of export workers and give profits to owners, and in the process salaries of all workers are also cut, lowering their living standards.

Cambodia is now dollarized and its central bank is effectively castrated after busting the currency to 4,000 to the US dollar and has no power to harm wage earners, or destroy domestic capital that can be used to boost productivity.

In Sri Lanka the government also controls bus fares, which requires standing passengers to make them viable, though many males and some women were purchasing scooters to avoid the hassle of public transport until the central bank printed money and banned the import of vehicles.





Amid a Covid crisis, prices were raised to help carry passengers according to available seats.

Sri Lanka has also halted a light rail project in Colombo.

The IPS recommended government regulations and minimum wages.

Classical economists however have cautioned against minimum wages, as they were originally designed in countries like the US to keep, women and handicapped people out of the work place by eugenicists.

Later they were used to stop un-uionized black workers from competing against white unionized labour.

Economists have pointed out that there was no big gap between white and black worker unemployment in the US until the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act was brought.

Similar tactics were used in South Africa to push jobs towards better qualified white workers.

Eugenicists promoted minimum wages to keep women at home in their ‘traditional role’ and to keep ‘undesirables’ out of work in the hope that they will reduce reproduction because they could not find a job.

It is the least skilled workers who are hit most by minimum wages as they cannot compete with their better skilled or ‘white’ colleagues or men.

“Legal Minimum Wage positively increases the productivity of the nation’s industry, by ensuring that the surplus of unemployed workmen shall be exclusively the least efficient workmen; or, to put it in another way, by ensuring that all the situations shall be filled by the most efficient operatives who are available,” wrote Fabian socialist Sydney Weber in Economic Theory of the Minimum Wage.

In the early 20th century when eugenicists and other interventionists first brought the minimum wage laws, courts in several American states, including Wisconsin and Arkansas had struck them down saying minimum wages limited the right of workers to contract and/or they were unconstitutional.

The full op-ed is reproduced below:

Facilitating Night Work for Women in Sri Lanka


Increasing female labour force participation has been a challenge for the country. These
challenges are even greater for night-work and shift-work (hence referred to as non-standard

There is a growing trend in shift and night work in the service sector in Sri Lanka. As
labour force participation rates for males are already fairly high, policymakers are
increasingly looking towards females to fill the worker requirements for non-standard jobs.

The current literature has given limited attention on the specific challenges faced by females
looking to work in non-standard jobs.

In this context, based on in-depth face-to-face interviews conducted among a sample of 30
associate professional and semi-skilled women working in the private hospital and
supermarket sectors, an IPS study on ‘Women, Work and Night Shifts in Nursing Homes and
Supermarkets’ examined Sri Lankan women’s experiences and challenges in non-standard

The study also analysed existing labour legislation for night work and associated
implementation gaps.

Key Findings

The majority of female employees interviewed in thestudy both wanted and needed to work. In the absenceof standard work opportunities, non-standard work hadimportant benefits for both women themselves and thewider society. It empowered women and also helpedthem to support their families financially in spheressuch as education of children, health needs of parents,and building houses.

However, a number of barriersprevented women from fully engaging in non-standardwork.

Challenges at home and on the road

• Marriage and work-life balance, especially when no family support was available.
• Family and societal disapproval, especially in the supermarket sector, where the nature of
work is not as appreciated and respected as in the nursing home industry.
• Unreliability and safety concerns of night-time transport when facilities were not
provided by employers.
• Gender-based harassment on the road and in public transport, such as cat calling,
whistling, and unwanted comments on physical appearance.

Challenges at work and working conditions

• Long working hours often extending beyond the allocated shift.
• Lack of basic facilities and allocated meal times particularly for nursing home workers,
whose patients require round-the-clock care.
• Harassment from customers, including inappropriate remarks and unwelcome physical


1. Address risks and inefficiencies associated with travelling to work in the night by
increasing the frequency and reliability of public transport facilities. Further, strict
regulations should safeguard women from harassment in public transport and on the

2. Legislation and monitoring mechanisms should be tightened to improve working
conditions and facilities to ensure that workers are not exploited in night/shift work.

3. Factoring in additional costs involved in working in the night when determining
minimum wages will motivate more women to engage in night work.

4. Building awareness of workers’ rights via media campaigns on entitlements and
legislation will help protect workers from being exploited.

5. Challenge conventional gender roles from an early age to empower girls and women to
follow their aspirations and to stand up for their rights. Introducing gender awareness
and equality at the school level can help reshape attitudes and beliefs of children on
women in the work place, as they grow up to be responsible citizens who contribute to

Latest Comments


  1. The report that women and children were victims of violations in the past years, is much to be condemned and worse so, the delay to bring the culprits to justice is an insult to injury. Sri Lankan women are the best caring mothers. Our women are as human as the other person, and that is why they make the best caring nurses.

  2. I wish we could push for legislation that demands employers’ to be more responsible towards the female workforce if they are employing them during non-traditional working hours……like transport facilities, adequate restroom facilities, female supervisors etc.

  3. Good article, hope the relevant authorities will make necessary actions to implement those recommendations on every government and private sectors in the country very soon

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