Sri Lanka’s brain drain problem

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Sri Lanka’s economic collapse has led to a mass flight of skilled technicians to the European Union, the US and Australia.

The island nation of 22 million people off the south coast of India is now facing its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948. Sri Lanka owes its debtors $7 billion this year and has run out of foreign exchange reserves to pay for imports of food, fuel and medicines .

Queuing lines for fuel have made it impossible for IT staff to commute to the office. Those who work from home have to endure hours of power outages every day. “I know of companies that have sent UPS to people who are working from home and have done everything humanly possible to make sure those people are working as scheduled,” said Asela Waidyalankara, a cybersecurity expert based in Colombo rest of the worldBut despite best efforts, the desire to migrate seems pervasive throughout Sri Lanka’s IT sector.

Although the exact volume of crisis-related immigration is not available, tech leaders have been open about the brain drain. Sanjiva Weerawarana, founder of Sri Lankan software company WSO2, said the company lost 40 Sri Lankan employees to migration. “My feeling is that a few hundred are looking for migration opportunities,” he says wrote on twitter. To ensure business continuity and enhance investor confidence, WSO2 is expanding its presence outside of Sri Lanka.

The island nation, which consistently ranks among the top 30 software outsourcing destinations with 120,000 employees and export earnings of $1.2 billion in 2017, now feels threatened.

To retain talent, Sri Lankan IT companies have started pegging salaries to US dollars rather than local currency, but this has had little impact. “We have good talent who are leaving the country or have plans to move on, even though IT companies are offering salaries in USD,” Waidyalankara said. “Okay, we decide [salaries] at the daily exchange rate in USD. But what else? What else can I offer you? Security? comfort? I can’t offer you that. That is the tragedy,” he told me as he sat across from me at the Cinnamon Grand Colombo Hotel and straightened up last month.

Alongside technicians, other highly skilled workers such as doctors and nurses are also leaving as the embattled government has proposed pay cuts for a system already under immense stress from medical shortages. According to the Department of Immigration and Emigration, demand for new passports issued in 2022 has increased by 250%. “Every day someone you know leaves,” Waidyalankara said. “She [the government] have taken hope. This is the real Shakespearean tragedy.”

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