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Sri Lanka is experimenting with a 4-day workweek—but there’s one big catch

June 14, 2022, 4:48 PM UTC

Shortened workweek experiments are gaining steam worldwide, with advocates contending that working four days a week instead of five can boost productivity and employee satisfaction

But the four-day workweek idea is taking on a different meaning in Sri Lanka, as the country tries to fend off a looming food and fuel crisis.

On Tuesday the Sri Lankan Cabinet announced plans to implement a four-day workweek in the country, according to a government press release. The policy will grant the more than 1 million public employees in the country leave from their official duties every Friday for the next three months.

But government workers won’t be able to spend their longer weekends slacking off, as the policy comes with an important catch—public employees are expected to spend their Fridays farming to help the country increase its food supply.

Workers are expected to use their days off to “engage in agricultural activities in their backyards or elsewhere as a solution to the food shortage that is expected to occur in the future,” the press release read. The government is planning on providing officials with the “necessary facilities” to grow crops wherever they can. Officials also noted that a fuel shortage has “disrupted passenger transport,” and a reduced workweek will help reduce fuel use.

The policy’s terms capture the dire economic conditions in Sri Lanka right now, as the country is poised to face a catastrophic food and fuel shortage.

Sri Lanka’s economic spiral

As the Ukraine war limits global supply of food and fuel—and sends prices for both soaring—Sri Lanka is proving to be one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to inflation.

The annual inflation rate in Sri Lanka is currently a brutal 39%, primarily spurred by food and fuel costs. Food prices are now 57.4% higher than last year, and transport prices—which include diesel, petrol, and bus fare costs—are up 91.5%.

Constrained fuel supply and high prices have led to power outages lasting as long as 15 hours a day and people waiting in lines at gas stations for over 10 hours at a time. In March, two men with medical conditions died while queuing up at fuel pumps for hours under unusually hot temperatures.

But just how did it get so bad in Sri Lanka? 

The country’s economic problems started long before inflation began roiling global markets. Sri Lanka has been running a trade deficit for the past 20 years, importing significantly more than it exported. Experts have criticized the government for years of economic mismanagement that created ideal conditions for the country’s current woes. 

The country has run up a large import bill over the years, which Sri Lanka normally pays off through its foreign reserves. But after the pandemic decimated the tourism industry—which accounted for nearly 6% of the country’s GDP in 2018—Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves hit a record low, forcing the country to default on its debt in May.

An inability to pay for foreign imports, combined with curtailed global supply and high energy and food prices, has sent Sri Lanka spiraling into its worst economic crisis in 70 years, which has led to months of protests in the country.

Sri Lanka’s four-day workweek plan comes as the country announced rationing of fuel supplies and made public calls for farmers to increase production.

Sri Lankan officials may have taken inspiration from a similar reduced workweek proposal made in Pakistan last week, when the government announced it would shorten its official six-day workweek to five days to fend off fuel shortages.

It isn’t necessarily a glowing comparison, as months of political instability and a looming debt crisis, as well as the threat of default, have led some experts to warn that Pakistan could be on track for an economic spiral of the same magnitude as the one currently afflicting Sri Lanka.

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