Lankans migrate, work over time, and eat less to beat inflation

Official data showed that over a quarter million people have left the country so far this year, mainly for jobs.


October 25, 2022

COLOMBO – Leaving his family and relatives was the hardest decision for Suren. But he had no other option.He never wanted to go abroad for work. An accountant by profession, Suren even had the opportunity to be promoted for a higher post at the private firm he was working at in Colombo. But he was left with no choice.

“For the last three years, I had hopes that this country would become a better place for us to live peacefully. But it is becoming increasingly hard to live with the status quo,” the 36-year-old father of three from Colombo suburb Dehiwela said in conversation with EconomyNext.

Armed with a local accountancy qualification, Suren managed to find a job in Dubai. He leaves Colombo next week and is now in the process of preparing his family for his physical absence.

“It’s very hard to find an affordable school van service for my two sons. If I live in Sri Lanka, at least 40 percent of my salary will go only to send my boys to school,” he said after dropping his children at one of the main schools in Colombo.

A currency crisis that led to a shortage of essentials, sovereign debt default, and later into a political crisis has forced Suren to look for better opportunities than his 50,000 rupee (139 dollar) monthly salary.The sharp depreciation of Sri Lanka’s currency alone resulted in his monthly salary eroding from 250 US dollars to its current level. Excess money printing by the central bank to artificially maintain record low interest rates and exchange rates are now taking their toll on Sri Lankans from all walks of life.

Suren will now earn in UAE dirham which has almost doubled against the local rupee in the last seven months.

“I can’t think of a future for my kids because at one point we did not have milk powder for my younger child, wheat flour to make breakfast, cooking gas for our own meals or medicines for my mother. More than anything, costs have gone up like crazy with no additional income,” he said.

Thousands of Sri Lanka’s skilled workers and professionals are facing the same situation as Suren. Most of them plan to leave the country either for a foreign job or to migrate permanently.

Official data showed that over a quarter million people have left the country so far this year, mainly for jobs.

“When you earn in foreign currency, at least you can manage the expenses,” said Suren.

“It is a cushion against the high costs. I hope I can take my family as well in the future to a foreign country. I have lost hope in this country.”

Sri Lanka’s inflation is hovering at a record high of 70 percent. The price of essential goods have more than tripled just in the last eight months, data showed.A person needs at least 500 rupees to have three meals a day with minimum nutrition.

Food inflation is now hovering over 90 percent.The central bank’s tight monetary policy with a record increase of policy rates has yet to curb inflation.Money printing, supply disruptions caused by former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s fertilizer mess up, a crippling dollar shortage, and sharp depreciation of the rupee led to significant price increases and affected supply across the board.

Supermarkets have put up notices warning customers that there could be frequent price hikes and asking them not to argue with staff if the real prices are not the same as those displayed on the shelves.Many Sri Lankans have cut down on food. Some have reduced their meals to two a day while others manage with reduced protein content in their plates. Some others have changed meals to one and consume cheaper foods at main meals.

“My wife and I have stopped eating in the mornings. But we try to give nutritious meals to our kids,” Shantha Silva, a 46-year old father of two, told EconomyNext.

Silva was a threewheeler taxi driver before the economic crisis. But the fuel shortage and expensive petrol have resulted in less demand for hires as more people have shifted to public transport or push bicycles or walking.Now he goes on hires as a part-time driver mainly at night. In morning hours, he works as a security guard at a private office in Wattala, 10km from capital Colombo, while also working in a hotel kitchen when he has some time off.

“It’s a machine life now,” said Silva.

“If you want to survive in Sri Lanka without stealing or smuggling drugs, you have to have multiple jobs or reduce the meals you take.”

Silva’s wife is a cancer survivor but still needs medicines to keep the 45-year old kindergarden teacher healthy.

Both of their salaries are now adequate to manage only 50 percent of the total needs of their family. Before the crisis, Silva’s family saved at least 10,000 rupees or nearly 10 percent of their monthly compensation.But now Silva, similar to millions of Sri Lankans, is struggling to make ends meet.

“Reducing meals is not an option for children as they might face malnutrition. So I try my best to feed them by working multiple jobs,” he said.

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