Editorial: Re-aligning worlds of work, education | Sunday Observer

Editorial: Re-aligning worlds of work, education

Covid-19 is the greatest challenge faced by humanity in living memory. It has virtually ended our normal lifestyles, leading to what is now called the ‘New Normal’, including the wearing of face masks and frequent hand washing. We may have to live with the Coronavirus in the foreseeable future, at least until a viable vaccine can be administered to everyone on the planet.

The biggest change has occurred in two fields – work and education. Suddenly, many workers and companies found they could no longer carry on working in the conventional sense of the word. Many companies, including the publisher of this newspaper, moved completely online for a couple of months, with staffers working from home to bring this newspaper to your screen. But only a few companies in a very few sectors could achieve this overnight transformation. From airlines to banking, there are many other fields of work and activity that require a physical presence at a given site. In short, there are many jobs that can never really go online.

And that is without even mentioning the self-employed and informal workers who do physical work that just cannot be replicated online. They have been the hardest hit segment in the worldwide lockdown, unable to work or find any work. Moreover, the lack of business meant that many industries and companies were compelled to lay off workers (though this was kept to a minimum here with Government intervention) or at least send them home on no pay leave for an indefinite period.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa touched on these aspects in his recent address to the ILO Global Summit on the ‘World of Work’ in the Covid-19 scenario. “I sincerely hope and wish that this opportunity will serve as a means for all countries to re-align their ‘worlds of work’ accordingly and emerge safer and stronger after this global calamity,” President Rajapaksa said.

“Covid-19 posed us with perhaps the greatest human crisis in the modern period. As a result, the ‘World of Work’ is undergoing a massive reorganisation in the post Covid-19 period in developed as well as developing countries alike.”

Sri Lanka can actually be cited as an example of a country that did everything possible to protect the 8.6 million strong workforce during the pandemic, both from the effects of the pandemic itself and the resultant economic fallout.

The most notable one was the payment of a fixed monthly allowance (of Rs. 5,000) to the most affected self-employed categories in the workforce in April and May. These included all employees on a daily wage as well as many other vulnerable categories such as pre-school teachers and self-employed persons.

Credit is also due to the Government for repatriating nearly 15,000 Sri Lankans from destinations abroad. But this adds another dimension to our labour landscape in that this fraction of the labour force will now have to join the local labour force, without returning to their original countries of employment. This will also require a re-thinking and re-engineering of labour requirements as well as “Re-skilling’ and “Up skilling” of employees.

Employers will also have to rethink their strategies going forward. They should offer the option of Working from Home for employees whose jobs can be done remotely, even if the Coronavirus pandemic is controlled successfully. Several global companies have already made this decision.

They should also assess how many other jobs can be moved online. Actually, some companies are contemplating removing humans altogether from certain jobs, that can apparently be done by robots and Artificial Intelligence.

The future belongs to the brave and none of the above will be possible without a sound educational foundation. Education too was one of the fields that more or less moved completely online during the pandemic. While most universities and even some schools did move to online teaching in Sri Lanka and around the world, this too is fraught with problems just like in the world of work. One major problem in developing countries such as Sri Lanka is the lack of broadband as well as home computers.

Both are in the 20 percent range in Sri Lanka, though this does not take into account smartphones, of which everyone has two. But it is not easy to follow an interactive course on a smartphone, unlike on a desktop or laptop. Likewise, 4G broadband coverage is uneven across the island and there could be blind spots in remote areas with no coverage. Though there are lessons on TV as well, it does not have the interactivity that online lessons provide.

Experts fear that this could pave the way for a ‘Digital Divide’ in education – between children who have access to broadband and laptops/PCs and those who do not. The Government must evolve a solution to this dilemma, since online classrooms may become commonplace in the post-Covid environment and even exams may be held online.

Fortunately, most workplaces and some Grades in schools have already started in the island, thanks to the heroic efforts of the Government, the health workers and the Security Forces in controlling the pandemic.

But the global nature of the pandemic means that we cannot take any chances and become complacent. We should be ready to face any eventuality that may again shift the focus back to online work and education. We must be in the forefront of this transformation to face the challenges of the future.