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Saturday May 25th, 2024

What Sri Lanka’s IMF program should look like

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka should go for a tight reserve money program in any International Monetary Fund program with progressive falling ceilings on domestic assets, and junk the flexible inflation targeting non-regime that has brought economic chaos to the country.

The highly discretionary ‘flexible’ inflation targeting and ‘flexible’ exchange rate (soft-peg) had brought three currency crises in 7 years, caused misery to 20 million people and left politicians holding the can.

Why the IMF can help when India or China billions cannot

The IMF can solve the monetary crisis, without billions of inflows from India or China, because it addresses the core problem which is the central bank with a soft-peg that has lost its credibility.

The problem is not the lack of inflows, but excess outflows (either through imports or capital flight) triggered or enabled by money printed to keep policy rates down.

In fact, the Indian credit lines, far from solving the problem, will boost imports, widen the external current account deficit and leave the government or state enterprises with more foreign debt.

Therefore the core IMF program is to deal with the real problem, which will control the central bank’s domestic operations.

The core of an IMF program is a monetary program that will restrain any central bankers’ ability to print money and stop the printed money from spilling over the balance of payments creating forex shortages.

An IMF program has Performance Criteria (PCs) involving the central bank and the budget deficit which must be met in stages to go to the next level. Several of those, including monetary targets, foreign reserve targets, or deficits (which may be expressed as a domestic borrowing target) will be Quantitative PCs.

It has Indicative Targets to support the PCs. A failure to meet Performance Criteria will lead to a suspension – failure to complete a review.

Prior Actions

Steep rate hikes are needed to save the rupee.

An IMF program starts with a float as a prior action to stabilize the currency – depreciation is an inevitable consequence of past money printing. An attempt to float the currency in March has failed due to a low policy rate and a surrender requirement.

A float or re-peg is needed for anything else to work.

Removing the surrender requirement to give 50 percent of inflows to the central bank should be removed forthwith. It can later be replaced with a Net International Reserve Target (see below)

Any structural benchmarks can be made into a prior action. Such as gazetting a value-added tax amendment.

Core Monetary Program

The core IMF program should be a reserve money program where strict limits are set to limit its expansion. The central bank has lost its grip on reserve money as seen in recent data.

Performance Criteria – Reserve Money Target

When a peg is operated, whenever it is defended – reserves are used for imports – reserve money has to stop growing and interest rates have to rise. If it does not, there will be a balance of payments crisis.

However now reserve money is growing as the currency falls while money is printed through domestic operations. It allows businesses and others to raise prices and make the price rises permanent (validate) through unrestrained expansion of reserve money.

Inflation is now galloping and can turn into hyperinflation if more money is printed to give salaries to state workers or subsidies before the exchange rate is stabilized. In March, inflation was already at 18.7 percent.

Any reserve money growth must be from net foreign assets compatible with reserve targets.

Sri Lanka’s last IMF program failed primarily due to the monetary policy consultation clause with ‘flexible inflation targeting’ which allowed central bankers to run circles around the core performance criteria, create forex shortages and miss a foreign reserve target.

Performance Criteria/Indicative Target – A ceiling on domestic assets of the central bank

Based on the reserve money target, and expected fiscal financing coming from development partners, a progressive falling ceiling must be set on the domestic assets of the central bank on its Treasury bill stock.

To sell down the Treasury bill stock, rates must be raised to slow domestic credit and a working monetary regime must be established. The IMF usually does this by a float and then it is re-pegged loosely.

Performance Criteria – Net International Reserve Target

Complementary to the falling domestic asset target, a net international reserve target can be set. As soon as reserve money stops expanding, and the central bank can buy dollars, at a given exchange rate, the fall in domestic assets will equal the rise in monetary reserves.

PC or IT on Ceiling on central bank swaps

The central bank currently has more liabilities than assets. It can default at any time.

The central bank should be forced to undo its swaps progressively. It should be barred from getting into swaps with interbank market participants in the future so that policy errors can be corrected fast before imbalances build up.

The Lebanon central bank got into trouble by getting dollar deposits from banks instead of buying dollars by selling down its domestic assets stock after raising rates.

Getting deposits from banks at double-digit rates, or rolling over swaps at high rates is a central bank Ponzi scheme.

The Disorderly Market Conditions Rule

The IMF usually sets a disorderly market condition rule allowing the central bank to intervene in limited cases.

However theoretically, the disorderly market conditions rule makes no sense. Until a float is established there can be no interventions for DMC or otherwise. Take a page from Russia’s float. A DMC can lead to a collapse of the exchange rate in a country subject to capital flight.

IMF programs fail – like Argentina- partly due to the DMC, even if it is unsterilized. A firm peg after domestic credit is slowed and after a float is established is more consistent, but is usually discouraged by the IMF due to internal ideology.

An unsterilized DMC is a currency board rule, but without the credibility that comes from a single unchanging credible exchange rate. Therefore DMCs fail often from Argentina to Pakistan.

Supporting Fiscal Program

The real benefit comes from the monetary program and fiscal fixes, not the money itself. The IMF money helps boost reserves upfront and allows reserves to be collected later and repaid when the country stabilizes and begins to grow.

The money goes to the central bank. If invested in US Treasuries, it will finance the US budget deficit.

Under Covid-19 relaxation, countries could potentially access about 5 times of quota under exceptional circumstances. Sri Lanka already owes about 1.3billion dollars to the IMF.

However, it depends on the needs and repayment capacity and political willingness of the Executive Board.

The development partners give budget finance if the debt is made sustainable and there are reforms to quality for budget or program financing.

PC on non-accumulation of external arrears (a non-default clause)

This is where debt restructuring comes in. A fiscal program involving debt restructuring and deficit reduction is needed to keep down interest rates.

An IMF program is fully financed and there is no default. Therefore debt restructuring is needed to ensure that the interest rate does not shoot up and enough resources are left for domestic consumption and to invest to provide a reasonable growth path.

It is irrelevant whether there are hair cuts or not. What matters is for debt to be rolled over to give breathing space. This fixes the problem of lost access to international markets.

Debt restructuring will reduce the Gross Financing Need (GFN) and the corrective interest rates needed to fix the country.

Haircuts, especially on Sri Lanka Development Bonds can contribute to a banking crisis – depending on where the exchange rate is. The banks in turn may have to be bailed out with government funds. It must be noted that SLDB holders have not been behaving like ISB buyers and have been instead acted like senior creditors, like the World Bank and ADB, re-financing Sri Lanka in a crisis.

ADB and World Bank do not get hair-cuts.

Quantitative PC on domestic borrowings or a primary deficit target

Since interest rates shoot up in an IMF program, a deficit target before interest costs (primary deficit) is needed.

The ultimate fix will come from reducing government spending and reducing the deficit. Revenue to GDP is not relevant except as a tool to reduce deficits.

Like the restructuring of debt, raising taxes will reduce the interest rate needed to stabilize the country.

It must be borne in mind that a revenue-based fiscal consolidation without meaningful spending cuts will simply reduce growth, as money will be taken from the private sector and misspent by the government.

The last IMF program failed partly due to a revenue-based fiscal consolidation that boosted total consumption but did not have spending-based consolidation (cutting spending such as limiting the expansion of the public service) and the money was used to pay state salaries and subsidies.

Revenue-based fiscal consolidation is politically naïve and economically unsound, as explained by classical economists like BR Shenoy to Sri Lanka as far back as 1966.

By boosting total consumption and encouraging rigid state spending, currency crises and external defaults are made more certain when total state spending goes up. And that is what happened in 2018 and it worsened after tax cuts in December 2019.

Under the last IMF program, spending to GDP went up from 17 to 20 percent of GDP, and there was a currency crisis in 2018.

Revenue-based fiscal consolidation, without spending cuts, will increase the likelihood of default by boosting domestic consumption, and reducing private savings needed to re-build reserves.

A DMC without a credible fixed exchange rate can push up interest rates to a higher level and also lead to currency instability.

The capital budget which is financed by domestic borrowings must be cut.

The budget targets will be supplemented by a series of economic reforms set as structural benchmarks. Any of these can be made into prior actions which need to be done before the program is approved by the board.

IT on privatization

An indicative target or structural benchmark for privatization will reduce the interest rates, boost budget revenues and reduce a long term drain on taxes to support them. A successfully privatized firm will eventually bring in tax revenues.

Partner Funding

A strong reform program made up of structural benchmarks can supplement budget finance. At the moment with the Debt Sustainability Analysis being negative, budget or program finance is not possible.

China is the only country that has provided non-project budget finance to Sri Lanka in the recent past. China has said recently it will give a billion dollars.

With a good set of structural benchmarks, it will be possible to get some money. The Indian credit line on food and medicine can be built into the budget. Medicine can be used to directly fund the health sector and any credit given to the private sector for cash can be used for budget finance.

Usually, ADB, World Bank and Japan will chip in.

Structural Benchmarks

Tax hikes

This column had advocated a blanket 20 percent hike in the past to avoid steep currency depreciation. But now the rupee has fallen from 200 to 300 to the US dollar.

A 15 percent VAT hike in rupees will now be equal to 20 percent at 200 to the US dollar.

The last budget proposed new cascading taxes. But that further complicates the tax structure and must be junked.

In the longer-term, companies should have income tax rates of 15 percent as required by the Yellen tax.

Any domestic producer getting more than 20 percent import duty protection must have a corporate income tax rate of 45 percent. Trade taxes should be reduced to 10 percent in the longer term.

The Strategic Development Act which allows tax holidays to be given to the highest bidder and foreign workers to be given tax-free salaries must be re-considered.

Interim budget to parliament with new targets

This is tricky with the make-up of the current parliament. This is where that the opposition can support.

Fixing banks a priority

There is a ticking bomb in the state banking system in particular.

Banks have been misused in the past to give dollars loans to the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation whenever money was printed by the central bank to create forex shortages.

State banks have loaned 3.3 billion US dollars to the CPC which has essentially gone bad.

State banks have also been misused to finance the CEB.

Privatizing the state banks will also prevent authorities in the future from forcing the CPC to borrow dollars when forex shortages occur.


Sri Lanka has to work fast to contain multiple defaults as Tanzi bites: Bellwether

Privatizing banks in the long term will also stop the financing of zombie state enterprises. Privatizing the CPC will also stop the price controls.

The long term solution is to fix the central bank so that forex shortages do not happen in the first place.

Any haircuts on SLDBs, which are financed by dollar deposits will also contribute to the problem.

There are also other problems in banks that need urgent attention. There are usually bad loans as consumption falls with currency depreciation. There can be margin loans.

All banks are having serious problems with limits with counterparty banks abroad being cut.

Fixing circular debt of CPC, CEB

The two energy utilities have circular debt and also owe money to IPPs. Pakistan which has a similarly bad central bank with a flexible exchange rate has identical problems as Sri Lanka.

The long term solution is to fix the central bank with changes to the Monetary Law so that the currency cannot be depreciated for competitive exchange rate or other purposes by Mercantilists wreaking havoc across the banking system, savings and pensions.

This problem is not addressed in the draft law prepared by the last administration and in fact, makes it worse.

Price formula for fuel, electricity

The price formula for fuel and electricity is a must. It can now be seen that the Indian credit line is going to fund losses in energy utilities, making an already bad problem worse.

If electricity is market priced, the money from the India credit line can be used for budget finance.

There must be some legal reforms to the Public Utilities Commission to make price hikes faster and prevent delays from adding to debt and currency crises. The current process is too cumbersome.

The monthly price changes adopted in Singapore by the regulator are an option.

To stop prices from going permanently up, and allow the price formula to work in both directions, the central bank has to be reformed by law, that outlaws the flexible exchange rate (soft-peg), curtails open market operations, and commits it to a single anchor monetary framework.


There are a number of state enterprises that can be privatized very quickly giving money to the budget. It is a low hanging fruit that was opposed by Wimal Weerawansa and the Rajapaksa family but does not make sense.

These include Sri Lanka Insurance, Litro Gas, and state hotels. There is a list of such companies.

Sri Lankan Airlines is flying on increasingly thin air with a sovereign under pressure.

The sale of a stake in Sri Lanka Telecom giving full management control to the Malaysian investor will unlock value in the company and lead to growth.

Land sales could also be done. Each land should be sold separately.

Public sector burden

The burden of the public sector on the people must be reduced. This is where revenue-based fiscal consolidation is going.

The increase in the retirement age must be scrapped. The public sector must be allowed to reduce through retirement as well as an active voluntary scheme.

The military must also be given some scheme to retire if they wish. When the economy recovers, and if trade taxes are reduced there will be jobs.

Retirees who get jobs in the private sector will contribute to the provident funds.

A contributory state pension fund must be set up for all new employees.

This will end the incentive for crafty unemployed graduates to rob peoples’ taxes as salaries and non-contributed pensions.

Phasing out import and exchange controls

All import and exchange controls must be phased out.

Imports including cars can be allowed so that taxes will go up, as soon as the exchange rate is stabilized. There is no harm in maintaining high taxes on cars for the moment.

However, the long term solution to end import and exchange controls is to reform the central bank law, curtail open market operations and commit it to a single monetary anchor.

These reforms are not rocket science. Whether its 2022 or 1966, the unfinished reforms are the same in this country. There are more reforms that can be done but have been omitted to save space.

Going beyond IMF

Sri Lanka’s economic death warrant was signed when the Latin America style central bank was set up in August 28, 1950, abolishing a currency board to become part of the Bretton Woods. Sri Lanka joined the IMF the next day.

The Bretton Woods’ soft pegs flogged by people like John H Williams collapsed in 1971. Soft pegs or flexible exchange rates are fundamentally flawed because they have anchor conflicts.

Despite having multiple currency crises, Sri Lanka did not go down the Latin American default path in the past due to a lack of commercial debt. Donor countries continued to fund Sri Lanka through crises.

Now Sri Lanka is staring at a default.

But in a country with a Latin America style central bank is default is not the problem. It is the monetary meltdown. The difference between Greece and Latin America with fuel shortages, job losses and outmigration was explained four years ago by this columnist when the consequences of ‘flexible inflation targeting became very clear.


Sri Lanka is not Greece, it is a Latin America style soft-peg: Bellwether

Sri Lanka’s monetary meltdown will accelerate unless quick action is taken: Bellwether

Sri Lanka’s high-interest rates and the large interest burden relative to government revenue are entirely due to money printing and depreciation. Anyone can do this with rates shooting up as warned in these columns before.

When the central bank was set up, the three-month bill yield was 0.4 percent.

A reserve money target based only on NFA is not contradictory. However, a more neutral monetary regime is needed for strong growth and stability.

In a single anchor monetary framework, where capital is not evaporated by depreciation (inflated away) such as in a currency board, or a clean floating regime, interest rates start to plunge to low levels in about 1.5 Fed cycles.

A strong currency and low inflation will also reduce the current account deficit by reducing the need to import capital.

Sri Lanka’s fiscal problems involving a high-interest burden will fall automatically as rupee bonds are rolled over at 2 percent inflation.

For that, a rule-bound currency board or a clean floating rate with a rule-bound to an inflation target is required. Without a single anchor monetary framework, Sri Lanka will end up at the IMF – again.

Any former central bankers and others who are coming to help the country at this time should be admired.

However, there is a risk that an IMF program will not be able to stabilize the country as political instability builds up.

In that case, a re-financed new currency board or dollarization are options. As things stand, with political uncertainty triggered by monetary instability, spontaneous dollarization is also a possibility.

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Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.


Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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300 out of 1,200 Sri Lanka central bank staff works on EPF: CB Governor

ECONOMYNEXT – About 300 central bank staff out of 1,200 are employed in the Employees Provident Fund and related work, Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said, with the function due to be transferred to a separate agency after a revamp of its governing law.

“When it comes to the EPF there is an obvious conflict of interest. We are very happy to take that function out,” Governor Weerasinghe told a forum organized by Colombo-based Advocata Institute.

“We have about 300 staff out of 1,200 including contract staff, almost 150 of permanent staff is employed to run this huge operation. I don’t think the central bank should be doing this business,”

The EPF had come under fire in the past over questionable investments in stocks and also bonds.

In addition, the central bank also faced a conflict of interest because it had another agency function to sell bonds for the Treasury at the lowest possible price, not to mention its monetary policy functions.

“There has been a lot of allegations on the management of this fund. This is the biggest fund of the private sector; about 2.6 million active, I think about 10 million accounts.

“When it comes to EPF, obviously there’s another thing. We obviously have, in terms of resources, on the Central Bank, that has a clear conflict because we are responsible for the members.

“We have to give them a, as a custodian of the fund, we have to give them a maximum return for the members.

“For us to get the maximum return, on one hand, we determine the interest rates as multi-policy. On the other hand, we are managing public debt as a, raising funds for the government.

“And on the third hand, this EPF is investing 90 percent in government securities. And also, interest rates we determine, and they want to get the maximum interest. That’s a clear conflict, obviously, there’s no question.”

A separate agency is to be set up, he said.

“It’s up to the government or the members to determine to establish a new institution that has a trust and credibility and confidence of the members that this institution will be able to manage and secure an interest and give them a reasonable return, good return for their lifetime savings,” Governor Weerasinghe said.

“The question is that how whether we have whether we can develop that institution, whether we have the strong institution with accountability and the proper governance for this thing.

“I don’t think it should be given completely to a private sector business to run that. Because one is that here we have no regulatory institution. Pension funds are not a regulated business.

“First one is we need to establish, government should establish a regulatory agency to regulate not only the EPF business fund, there are several other similar funds are not properly regulated.

“Once we have proper regulations like we regulate banks, then we can have a can ensure proper practices are basically adopted by all these institutions.

“Then you can develop an institution that we who can run this and can be taken back by the Labour Department. I’m not sure Labour Department has the capacity to do all these things.”

While some EPF managers had come under scrutiny during the bondscam and for questionable stock investments, in recent years, it had earned better returns under the central bank management than some private funds that underwent debt restructuring according to capital market analysts with knowledge of he matter. (Colombo/May24/2024)

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Desperate Sri Lankans seek risky foreign jobs amid tough IMF reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – After working 11 years in Saudi Arabia as a driver, Sanath returned to Sri Lanka with dreams of starting a transport service company, buoyed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 presidential victory.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 shattered his dreams. Once an aspiring entrepreneur, he became a bank defaulter.

Facing hyperinflation, an unbearable cost of living, and his family’s daily struggles, Sanath sought greener pastures again—this time in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I had to pay 900,000 rupees ($3,000) to secure a driving job here,” Sanath (45), a father of two, told EconomyNext while having a cup of tea and a parotta for dinner near Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

Working for a reputed taxi company in the UAE, Sanath’s modest meal cost only 3 UAE dirhams (243 Sri Lankan rupees). Despite a monthly salary of around 3,000 dirhams, he limits his spending to save as much as possible.

Sanath has been in Abu Dhabi for 13 months but had to wait six months before driving a taxi and receiving no salary.


“I had to get my UAE driving license. I failed the first trial, and the company paid 6,500 dirhams on my behalf, agreeing to deduct 500 dirhams monthly from my salary,” he explained.

“So far, I have repaid only 3,000 dirhams.”

To raise the 900,000 rupees for the job, Sanath borrowed money from friends and pawned jewelry.

“I don’t know if I was cheated by the agent, but I must repay that money and also send money for my family’s expenses,” he said, glancing at a photograph of his family in a Colombo suburb.

Working night shifts in busy Abu Dhabi, Sanath said, “If I can secure 9,000 dirhams monthly through taxi driving, I will earn 3,000 dirhams in the month after deductions for the license fee and any traffic fines.”

Sanath came to Abu Dhabi with seven other Sri Lankan men through an employment agency in the Northwestern town of Kurunegala.

“Only two of us have withstood the tough traffic rules and payment deductions for offenses,” he said. Some of his colleagues are still job-hunting, while others have returned to Sri Lanka.

Sanath is one of around 700,000 Sri Lankans who have left the island in the last two years due to the economic crisis that forced the country to adopt difficult fiscal and monetary policies, including higher taxes and costly borrowing, exacerbating the cost of living.


From January 2022 to the end of March 2024, at least 683,118 Sri Lankans migrated for foreign employment through legal channels, according to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau.

They have sent $11.31 billion in remittances through official banking channels during the same period, central bank data shows.

Many Sri Lankans leave on visit visas, hoping to find jobs later, often guided by friends already working abroad. The economic crisis has pushed them to seek better opportunities abroad, despite the risks.

Sri Lankan authorities struggle to stop such risk-takers, who sometimes resort to illegal migration, despite warnings about human trafficking.

In Myanmar, 56 Sri Lankans caught in an IT job scam were detained earlier this year, and the government is still repatriating them.

At least 16 retired Sri Lankan military personnel have been killed in the Russia-Ukraine war after being misled by unscrupulous recruiters. Officials estimate that over 400 retired military officers may have left for similar reasons.


In March, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry warned against visiting any nation on open visas, urging Sri Lankans to emigrate only through registered agencies.

Despite the risks, many Sri Lankans are desperate to leave.

Abu Salim, a 32-year-old former rugby player, came to Dubai on a visit visa hoping for a banking job, which he never got.

Now freelancing in an insurance firm, he said, “I survive, and my relatives don’t see my struggle. It’s stressful, but still better than Sri Lanka right now.”

Suneth, a former top garment merchandiser, is also job-hunting in Sharjah after quitting his initial job in Sharjah.

“My worry is the visa. I must find a new job before it expires,” he said.

Many Sri Lankans in the UAE work multiple jobs, compromising their sleep and health to make ends meet. (Abu Dhabi/May 24/2024)

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