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Address by Hon Athauda Senevirathne, Minister of Labour Relations and Foreign Employment of Sri Lanka - at the High-Level Segment of the Economic and Social Council

Mr. President
Excellencies
Ladies and Gentlemen

The High level dialogue has focused on many important areas in generating full and productive employment and decent work for all. We are all in agreement that the access to work is the surest way out of poverty. At the same time those countries that pursued social policy goals underline that this is a sound and sustainable investment for growth; supportive public policies in health, education and gender empowerment together with an enabling environment for entrepreneurship can provide impetus to employment creation.

In April, the IMF praised the global economic performance pointing out that 2006 would be the fourth consecutive year of growth of about 4% and that the world can honestly be told that it has “never had it so good”.  However, according to the UN statistics, the world’s unemployment rate of 6.3% is higher than a decade earlier, in particular, unemployment of women increased by 13.2 million from 1995 and particularly alarming is that  almost half of the unemployed in the world are young people.

Despite its relatively low level of per capita income, Sri Lanka’s achievements in the realm of social policies are indisputable: high literacy, near universal coverage in primary education, low levels of infant and maternal mortality, low fertility and long life expectancy,  including gender equality in health and education.  Sri Lanka is today well on its way to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. 

Despite the challenges of the conflict and the unprecedented tsunami crisis, Sri Lanka continues to record high annual growth, 6% in 2005.  Yet, according to available data, out of a labour force of nearly 8 million,  around 7% are unemployed affecting mainly women and youth.   This underlines the importance of initiatives such as the UN sponsored Youth Employment Network implemented by the ILO which focuses on four key labour market areas namely equal opportunities, employment creation, employability and entrepreneurship.  

Remittances from migrant workers represents a stable source of net foreign exchange earnings for Sri Lanka.  My Ministry is therefore concerned with the promotion of employment opportunities as well as for ensuring safe migration for our workers overseas who are now equivalent to one seventh of the labour force.  Migrant outflows are characterized by around sixty percent of female migrant workers who are mainly  in  unskilled or semi-skilled  jobs, raising protection concerns in both the receiving and home countries.

As a developing country, Sri Lanka is faced with many challenges in creating a conducive environment for full and productive employment and Decent Work.   These include payment of a fair wage and social protection by domestic enterprises faced with increasing competitive pressures in the global economy; providing decent employment for the large number of persons employed in the informal economy;  giving priority to market-driven economic growth, and aiming to deal with the social consequences afterwards.  In such circumstances it is indeed a challenge to obtain sustainable economic growth within a social framework of rights, participation, dialogue and protection 

Many argue that there are trade-offs between the quality and quantity of employment, and between social expenditure and investment, and that protective regulation undermines enterprise flexibility and productivity. But we believe that, on the contrary, decent work canpay for itself through improved productivity and resultant social and economic stability, as demonstrated by the positive experiences of other nations.

It is imperative to encourage  economic initiatives compatible with sustainable development through promoting more sustainable consumption and production patterns. Use of resources productively and economically is an important aspect of sustainable development.  It is also proposed to recommend integration of environmental best practices into employment and development programmes.   

To this end, ECOSOC could ensure that the ILO message of Decent Work should be mainstreamed throughout the UN system.  We also encourage our Regional  Commission ESCAP to  develop synergies with the larger UN family in this regard.

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