As tourist guides around the world marked International Day for Tourist Guides, local guides held a silent protest at Galle Face to express grievances aggravated by the pandemic.
According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) there are nearly 4,500 licensed guides across four categories: national tourist guide lecturers, chauffeur tourist guide lecturers, area tourist guide lecturers and site tourist guide lecturers.
Protesting silently, holding placards in English, German, French, Russian, Chinese and Japanese, national guide lecturers gathered at the “Agitation Site” near the Presidential Secretariat to ask for daily wages to be increased from $US14 to $US35.
They sought the intervention of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, saying the government regulator, SLTDA, was under heavy pressure from the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO), the umbrella organisation of tour companies (Destination Management Companies – DMCs) who bring tourists into the country, not to set a higher minimum daily wage.
Veteran national guide lecturer Ranjith Jayaweera was critical of the role played by SLAITO in determining daily wages.
“How could SLAITO be our salary regulator as it is only a voluntary association formed to represent [business] interests in the industry?” he questioned.
“In the last pay revision, in May 2017, SLAITO increased the wages of a national tour guide lecturer from Rs. 2,200 to Rs. 2,500 – a mere Rs. 300.”
He said although, prior to the pandemic, the SLTDA had agreed in principle that guides’ minimum daily wage should be raised to $US35 (down from the ambit claim of $US50), it had crumbled under pressure from tour operators with SLAITO, which argued its members could not afford to pay national guides $35 per day because of the pandemic shutdown.
“This is very typical for SLAITO, to come out with lame excuses whenever it is faced with salary issues. It has a history of giving reasons such as the tsunami, the civil war, dengue fever, bomb attacks or the pandemic.” Mr. Jayaweera said.
He said tour companies do not pay guides from their own pockets: the money was part of the tour packages bought by tourists. He claimed many companies have raised the prices of packages saying higher guide fees were the cause.
“I have a friend, an owner of a DMC, who said some DMCs even quote $US50 [about Rs. 9,725) as a daily guide fee while only paying Rs. 2,500 to guides and keeping the rest for themselves,” Mr. Jayaweera alleged
He explained that due to the seasonal nature of tourism, tour companies would not keep guides, whether national or chauffeur guides, on permanent staff. “We do not have pensions or social security, or even official salary slips to use to apply for a loan,” he said.
“Almost all of these DMCs insist that guides take groups to various tourist shops such as handicrafts, spice or gem shops to gain the companies a commission, and they claim that guides get enough from their portion of the commissions to make a living,” Mr. Jayaweera said.
“Members of the national guides say with one voice that we should get a fair salary rather than commissions.”
Pearly Chanaka, 49, of Kaduruwela, Polonnaruwa is a bilingual site guide speaking German and English, taking tourists around the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.
“We have no savings. We are daily wage workers. If we have work we earn, or else go home empty-handed,” he said.
Mr. Chanaka said he had to sell his wife’s jewellery to make ends meet last year. “There was nobody to look after us, neither the government nor the SLTDA, to care if we are dead or alive,” he said.
“I have been engaged in the industry, for 19 years. I do not know how to do any other job. My daughter is doing her Ordinary Level examination in March. If she does not pay Rs. 1,000 she is not admitted to the tuition class. We spend Rs. 8,000 on tuition fees for my two kids,” he said. Despite being thrifty, his monthly expenses exceeded Rs. 60,000.
“We used to earn around Rs. 8,000 a day when tourism was good but for the last month I had only earned Rs. 1,500,” Mr Chanaka lamented.