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On behalf of the Government and the delegation of Sri Lanka, let me extend our sincere congratulations to you and the Vice Presidents on your election to preside over the 95th Session of the International Labour Conference. We also greet Director General Somavia, thank him for the comprehensive presentation of the three Reports, and support the recommendations for action.
We should be proud of the achievements of the ILO, for both innovating the vision of ‘Decent Work’ and taking it beyond ILO into the UN system, making it a global goal recognized by our leaders at the World Summit in September 2005.
The ILO Programme Implementation Report for the last biennium presented positive performance-based results on the four strategic objectives even at a time of zero-growth budget. We also note with satisfaction the rising rate of ratification of the fundamental Conventions and urge ILO to continue its advocacy in this regard.
Sri Lanka has formulated both its National Policy and National Plan of Action on Decent Work. The National Policy identifies the weaknesses in the focus areas of Decent Work and sets out policies designed to overcome them. The National Action Plan has been developed with tri-partite and regional consultations to transform policy in to action. His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapakse who takes a personal interest in labour matters having held the Labour portfolio for several years, will himself present the Policy to the Cabinet of Ministers shortly for approval.
The Director General’s report entitled “Changing Patterns in the World of Work” takes up the challenge of achieving Decent Work as a global, regional and national reality based on the experience gained by the ILO working with its constituents. Globalization is driving rapid change affecting all sectors of economic activity including labour markets and workplaces.
In this context, narrowing down income inequalities has become the major development imperative for developing countries. In Sri Lanka, income inequality has remained virtually unchanged during the last half century: the lowest 40% of income receivers’ households received 15%, and the highest 20% received around 50% of the national income. Poverty afflicts nearly quarter of the population but varies considerably across the country.
In Sri Lankan households, those in regular wage employment are the worst affected by poverty, as over 50% of these households are below the poverty line. By contrast, only 5% where the main income earner is unemployed are considered to be below the poverty line. This apparent contradiction, that the working poor are worse off than the unemployed, is a matter we need to address in poverty reduction programmes. While we consider job creation is central for poverty reduction; it is important to ensure that new jobs yield incomes above the poverty line and guarantee to workers certain minimum standards that enable them to access a better quality of life.
Sri Lanka has mixed results following economic liberalization. On the one hand the country has recorded strong average annual growth of over 6%. On the other hand, intensification of global competition has affected some workplaces either by lay-offs, closure of business or deterioration of working conditions. I believe that we need not to be disheartened as there are ways and means of addressing these problems. At the level of trade policy, Sri Lanka was also able to gain from preferences granted on good governance and protection of labour rights. The drive for greater efficiency and higher productivity must be balanced with respect for basic rights of workers. For example, the ILO Factory Improvement Programme has achieved credibility with both the employers and the trade unions and should be extended.
The Director General’s Report also discusses the important issues of the informal economy and migrant workers which continue to pose major challenges for Sri Lanka. Around 70% of the workforce in the country is engaged in the informal economy, and around 1.5 million Sri Lankans, equivalent to around one seventh of the labour force, are working overseas. Migrant workers provide the most important source of foreign exchange for the country and we are continuously upgrading promotional and welfare programmes for Decent Employment in this sector. As Labour Minister, one of my main priorities is to meet with my counterparts in labour receiving countries and concerned multilateral agencies for broad consultations in order to find solutions for the many problems facing migrant workers. We have also initiated new programmes to address socio economic and physiological problems of the families of migrant workers.
I will be presenting to the Committees Sri Lanka’s special experience gained and lessons learned on the reconstruction after the devastating tsunami. We take this opportunity to convey our deep appreciation to the international community once again for the continued generous support and assistance to Sri Lanka in our time of need.