Tackling employer-supported childcare

By Shanika Sriyananda 

Iresha Perera (name changed) was a senior supervisor who had a promising future with her job at a food processing company off Colombo. Worked in the factory for over 15 years, she got her promotions soon and had a decent salary with other additional payments until last year. 

Iresha tried her best to retain in the job and even shifted her working hours to night shifts after she had her third baby. Although her mother was there to look after the three young children earlier, the workload was too heavy for her, since she was a diabetic and also on medication for high blood pressure. 

“I tried all means to continue with my job while looking after the children. My husband couldn’t quit his job as he earns more than me. I even dropped my daughter, who was three years old, at a day-care centre close to our house but later found the teachers there were careless about children’s safety. I had to leave her with my mother again,” Iresha said, explaining how she struggled to manage both fronts – home and the work in the factory. 

When she got warnings from the management for high absenteeism, she had no option but to give up her job. 

“I was depressed and tired. I couldn’t perform well. If I could have any place or a person who could look after my kids, I would be a manager now. We are struggling financially as my husband’s salary is not enough for us,” Iresha sobbed.

Being the only girl-child in the family, looking after her mother, who is sick, had also became an added reason her to stay at home. 

But she is not alone. She is only a victim among thousands of Sri Lankan female workforce, who gave their jobs to look after their families, including ageing parents. 

Female labour force in Sri Lanka

According to the latest report of the World Bank, ‘Getting to Work: Unlocking Women’s Potential in Sri Lanka’s Labour Force’, housework and care for children and the elderly parents, is a main reason listed among two other main deterrents – human capital mismatch and gender discrimination – that prevent working women to continue with their employment to realise their economic potential. 

The report had found several interesting facts on female workforce in Sri Lanka, which has been ranked as the 14th country with the largest gender gap in Labour Force Participation (LFP) globally. It stood for 36% for women and 75% for men in 2016.

The multivariate analysis of the recent data suggests that women’s contribution in household chores after marriage has significantly lower the number of females joining the labour and this is even lower than before the end of the war, eight years back. 

Meanwhile, the qualitative research has confirmed the increasingly powerful influence that these gender norms have on family roles and on women’s safety and mobility—all of which obstruct women from getting to work, diminishing both labour supply and labour demand for women workers: employers as well as families and communities expect women either to not enter or to leave the workforce if they are married and have children.

However, travelling to work becomes even less acceptable once women move into these family roles.

The joint event under the theme ‘Tackling Employer-Supported Childcare’ organised by the World Bank, International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) ‘Women in Work’ program in Sri Lanka was held recently in collaboration with AUSAID (DFAT). 

Giving an overview on the World Bank report, World Bank Senior Development Specialist Jennifer Solotaroff said that women’s experience in Sri Lanka’s labour market remains characterised by low LFP; high unemployment, especially for women younger than age 30; and persistent, though shrinking, wage disparities between the sexes.

“Poor gender outcomes recorded mainly due to household roles and responsibilities – especially the child care, a mismatch between skills acquired in school and those demanded in the labour market, and gender discrimination in labour supply as well as labour demand dynamics,” she said.

Solotaroff, who is the Gender Coordinator for the World Bank Group’s South Asia Region, is an author of the report ‘Getting to Work – Unlocking Women’s Potential in Sri Lanka’s Labour Force’.

Solotaroff also said that the recent data had suggested that there was a significant impact on low labour participation of females due to sexual harassment in public transport. 

“Women and girls are not treated equal in the labour market even though women are extremely well-educated. They were discriminated by the employers,” she said adding that the gender discrimination is the third reason that hinders women getting into work.

Human-capital mismatch

The WB report noted that LFP of Sri Lankan females between 15-30-years have been stagnated to 25% since 2010. 

Improved Female LFP (FLFP) will also be critical to helping the country cope with its now-rising inverse dependency ratio: the demographic transition now under way suggests that the population older than age 60 will double in the next quarter-century, whereas the younger working-age population will continue to decrease because of lower total fertility rates.

The report states that gender norms, which restrict women’s mobility more than men’s—especially lack of social support for women commuting to work—and that prevent women from accessing safe and comfortable transportation to work, as well as parents’ greater encouragement of sons’ rather than daughters’ pursuit of careers, especially in the private sector, are other supply-side factors undermining women in labour markets. 

It all adds up to a human-capital mismatch, where women at all levels of educational attainment find it harder with each year to secure high-skill and higher-paying jobs. Examining the data provides further insights, including that wage gaps are shrinking over time, but that it is women under thirty, essentially those at the very start of their careers, who are most likely to struggle with unemployment.

Primary research confirms that employers actively discriminate by gender to a much smaller degree than employees suspect. Yet, this may not be the case for promotions—occupational segregation endures, and especially when it comes to high-skill and management jobs, men continue to dominate. 

4 priority areas

Taking the present situation into account, the report recommends four priority areas to focus on, each designed to address different barriers to women gaining paid employment and then continuing to thrive in the workplace.

It also offers specific recommendations for improving women’s participation in the five private sector industries studied: information and communication technology (ICT), tea estate work, tourism, garments, and commercial agriculture.

Starting young, career development initiatives can help girls acquire the education, skills and confidence to pursue courses, particularly in the STEM fields or in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programs, which are in demand with prospective employers.

Women entrepreneurs could be enabled to work out of their homes by providing relevant training and access to credit and market linkages, which allow them to establish successful businesses. Women who wish to travel outside the home for work could be better supported by improved access to safe transportation. 

By undertaking affirmative action and ethical branding initiatives, the private sector could help expand women’s share of employment and firm ownership in emerging industries.

In the end, it’s clear that getting women to work will require deploying ambitious, multi-pronged strategies that address the many issues impacting women’s participation in the workforce. Success will hinge on collaboration between various stakeholders, ranging from relevant government ministries, to education providers, to public sector and especially private sector employers. And in the end, women themselves will have to play a key role in claiming a space for themselves in Sri Lanka’s work force.

“Support in this area will require shifting some child and elder care responsibilities away from women who seek outside work, ensuring women’s safe travel to and from places of work, promoting more home-based income-generation opportunities for women, and, in the longer term, helping change attitudes toward women working outside the household, especially after marriage,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, it has recommended to expand opportunities for women to access part-time work and maternity leave, creating opportunities for women to generate income in their homes by providing some combination of technical and vocational training, financial literacy and business development training, access to credit or other financial assistance, and links to markets.

Onsite day-care an 

effective solution

As an effective solution to reduce the burden of taking care of young children by women, the report recommended to have quality onsite day-care at workplaces to support female employees to retain in their jobs.

At the panel discussion moderated by the Program Manager of the IFC Women in Work Program in Sri Lanka, a Co-Founder and Managing Director of MAS Holdings Ltd., Ajay Amalean explained about the success of Jordan-based MAS Kreeda Al-Safi-Madaba, the company’s on-site childcare centre, which looks after 36 children of the female employees.

In 2014, a WB report has found that lack of robust and affordable childcare infrastructure in Jordan was one barricade for women, who want to enter the workplace, to their ability to hold paid employment. The private childcare centres are expensive and fairly uncommon in areas outside cities. It was also found that the monthly charges for childcare centres were beyond their means and most parents of children ages four and five were left with no option other than home-based care.

However, the law introduced in 1996, the employers with at least 20 female workers who have among them at least 10 children below the age of four must provide care for those children by a trained nurse at an adequate childcare facility. 

MAS Kreeda Al Safi-Madaba’s childcare centre, which was a model for the MAS Group, was officially opened in 2016 and today it serves for 36 children and 30 mothers employed by the company. 

The on-site childcare centre provides free, quality childcare, in addition to a space for breastfeeding mothers. Workers also benefit from free transportation with their children to and from the facility and free on-site basic medical services provided by the company to its employees and to the children in the centre.

Although it is still a new entity, the childcare facility has already had an effect on important business indicators, including benefits to the company’s access to markets, its reputation, recruiting prospects, productivity and workplace stability, in the form of reduced absenteeism, higher retention and increased employee loyalty and satisfaction. 

“In Jordan, we started a small crèche with only two kids and the level of trust we kept with the employers have made it a success story. There is a waiting list of 20 kids now and we have a happy mother at work now,” Amalean said.

He said that the goals of the company needed to be very clear about what they want achieve, the participation of the workforce and the colleges to ensure that they wanted to do something genuinely. “The desire that you want to do something is very important. Since, our on-site childcare model in Jordan is a success, we have started the same thing in our factories in Kilinochchi, Mahiyanganaya, and Mihintale,” he said, adding that the projects in remote areas has been working successfully. 

Amalean said that some of the leading private sector companies could do similar childcare projects and they could become role models for other companies. 

“It is not only the money but the commitment to do so and the wonders we can do because we all know that there is a need for on-site childcare centres,” he said.

He said the most important factor was there would be a link between the child and the mother and for companies the crèche needed to be in the premises.

Directress of CeeBees Pre-school and childcare centre Fazeela Dharmaratne said the vision of companies which want to provide childcare has to be very clear. “A crèche cannot be operated in the way an independent school is run. I have both and they are quite different to each other. The child care provider needs to be considerate about the needs of the company,” she said.

Being a former banker, Dharmaratne said that trust factor is the most important aspect of providing quality childcare. CeeBees works with corporate to provide employer-supported childcare services and its clients include MAS Kreeda, MillenniumIT and WSO2 in Colombo.

She said that the employees needed to make understand that childcare centre provides a professional service and not just child care. 

“We had a very challenging situation at the beginning. But, I am positive with the latest document, the National Guidelines on Childcare in Sri Lanka, which had three drafts gone through by various authorities, this would be a good document for companies to go through to know about the guidelines relate to operating on-site crèches,” she said.

Dharmaratne said that the childcare guidelines were very interesting, relevant, timely, needed and practical and gives all the requirements in a nutshell.


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