By Vedant Dev Sharma

The International Labour Organization’s report on the “Future of Work in Sri Lanka: Shaping technology transitions for a brighter future” (download), suggests regulating the platform economy with a focus on worker welfare, and cites the Motor Vehicles Bill in India, which looks at enforcing licensing for ride-sharing platforms like Ola and Uber. The report highlights the need for implementing a data governance plan, saying that “Sri Lanka needs to develop data privacy and sharing laws that enable the digital economy, while keeping with global trends and best practices such as the EU’s GDPR.” It also suggests reduction of border taxes for technology imports, liberalizing digital payments and the adoption of Artificial Intelligence at a national level.

The report focuses on the adoption of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies (Artificial Intelligence, Intelligent Automation and Robotics) and their effect of job automation in Sri Lanka across agriculture, manufacturing, plantations, logistics, construction, the IT sector, retail and the public sector.

A summary of some parts of the report’s recommendations:

1. Technology and Innovation:
a. Implement a Data Governance plan.

  • There are currently no laws that govern data in Sri Lanka, but the Information Communication Technology Agency is pursuing a data governance policy ‘based on the adoption of a Data Protection Code of Practice’ and embed that as a regulation under the existing Information Communication Technology Act of 2003.
  • Sri Lanka needs to develop data privacy and sharing laws that enable the digital economy, while keeping with global trends and best practices such as the EU’s GDPR.

b. Encourage Technology Adoption and Spurring Entrepreneurship

  • In the private sector, the government should encourage the adoption of new technologies through targeted grants for enterprise innovation, reduction of border taxes for technology imports, liberalizing digital payments and encouraging API integration.
  • AI should be adopted at the national level; the IT industry has taken some initiatives. Last year,  SLASSCOM held the first national conference on AI – the ‘AI Asia Summit’. Moreover, a flagship data science training programme has been newly launched at the University of Colombo.

c. Support Mission-Oriented Innovation: Public policies can be used to support solution-building for the challenges facing enterprises. For eg. grants, innovation vouchers, and R&D subsidies can strengthen and promote technology companies that develop commercially-viable solutions and employment.

2. Redistribute Technology Gains

Technology-driven growth will accrue more to capital than to labour— hitting mid-level jobs like retail and accounting the most. This needs to be addressed through both traditional and novel redistributive methods. The report says that:

  • ‘Robot tax’ – a tax that recognises robots as ‘electronic persons’ can be deliberated, saying that the EU rejected this policy to tax robots as a worker would be taxed.The draft motion in EU parliament argues that, for tax purposes, organisations should declare savings made in social security contributions by utilising robotics
  • A ‘Labour utilisation fund’ could encourage skilling and hiring practices by providing labour subsidies to firms.
  • A framework in which firms contribute to state unemployment and social security funds, making them fiscally accountable for firing workers (as done by France) can be looked at. It proposed that countries should initiate minimum social security guarantees nationally, as the world of work undergoes tech-driven transformations, and that basic income security can be guaranteed through cash-transfer and work-guarantee programs for the informal sector.
  • Subsidised employment and providing credit can be used to further incentivise employees to hire unemployed workers and create jobs.
  • Broadbased, inclusive versions of Employee Stock Option Plans can create redistributive frameworks at a firm level, as can ‘Employee Ownership Trusts’.
  • Universal Basic Income is also being debated in policy discussions around technology as a way to aid workers when job protection becomes too difficult — this could be considered per national fiscal realities.

3. Labour Protection:
a. Revise Labour Protection plans: Technological developments lead to new business models e.g. non-standard forms of work, which will require labour protection and a revision of working conditions, according to the report. In addition, digital technologies can potentially offer workers a virtual space for information sharing, grievance redressal, and new ways of collective bargaining, thus allowing the platform economy to provide opportunities in formalizing the unorganised and informal sector in Sri Lanka. New forms of collectivising and avenues to promote collective bargaining are also made possible through social media, especially for groups like drivers in location-based work. It recommends:

  • Capacity building for employers’ organisations and unions on subjects relevant to technology and the future of work will be needed.
  • Labour protection laws need to be revised and re-established with worker needs at the forefront

b. Regulate the platform economy: The report also highlighted that, in case of the tourism sector, self-employment through digital platforms can create employment in allied industries such as transport, restaurants and so forth. While offering dispersed opportunities for work across Sri Lanka, digital platforms, if regulated effectively, can play a crucial role in decentralising access to work in the tourism sector by enabling small-scale and informal establishments outside the formal hotel industry, it said. Some recommendations:

  • Constant and reflexive regulation of the platform economy will be mandatory, along with the exploration of new, collaborative platform models with a focus on worker welfare. Such initiatives can be seen in the Motor Vehicles Bill in India, which proposed an amendment to Section 93 of the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 to enforce licensing for ride-sharing platforms like Ola and Uber, as well as statedeed rates and guidelines. Loconomics and Stocksy are other examples of co-operative models for worker and state-owned platforms, where value that is created is treated as a public good.
  • It is important to look separately at location-based platforms (like ride-sharing, food delivery services, and e-commerce) which can comply with local laws, versus web-based platforms (like remote freelancing work) which may adhere to international practices, based on the employer’s location. To govern digital labour, Sri Lanka will have to adopt global initiatives to establish transnational policies.

4. Education and Skilling

a. Focus efforts into skilling for jobs in Data Science and Cyber Security.

  • Education and skilling should match Sri Lanka’s quickly-evolving landscape, routine jobs in the IT sector increasingly ace automation. As has been done in India: (AICTE) is revamping technical courses by adding AI, machine learning, robotics, data-crunching, and analysis to syllabi.
  • Countries like South Korea, Germany, Singapore and Japan —  the top of the “Automation Readiness Index’— should be studied to understand how to best focus efforts into anticipatory curriculum reform and lifelong learning and occupational training.

b. Promote digital skilling programs and strengthen foundational skills: Interventions need to go beyond technical skills to enable adaptiveness among workers, and skilling cannot act as a substitute for education. Foundational knowledge for problem solving will be integral to the lifelong learnability and adaptive capacity of the ageing workforce. Soft skills will be relevant; without proper foundations of reading, writing, and arithmetic, a future of high-level comprehension of STEM, coding and digital skills cannot be reached.

c. Foster education and skilling programs to address regional gaps.

  • Targeted policy measures are needed in lagging regions, particularly amongst women and other marginalised groups. Regional disparities in English language proficiency and digital literacy need social focus. Though an initiative is required to make digital platforms accessible in local languages, there is also a need to enhance English language proficiency. Teachers need to be trained to use digital technologies as a teaching tool — in addition to national-level adoption of digital literacy throughout the education sector.
  • National campaigns to promote family counselling could help confront existing socio-cultural norms around economic agency, thereby creating learning spaces for women and other marginalised groups who, otherwise, do not have access to traditional centers.