Harpo Gooneratne talks about ground situation and support from Govt.
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
The world is currently undergoing a transitional period of adjusting to the new order where many businesses are facing unbearable financial detriments and millions are facing potential unemployment.
The global pandemic has left no industry untouched and most are gearing up for harder times ahead; while there is never a good time to be faced with a global crisis, unfortunately for Sri Lanka, the situation could not have been worse, considering we as an island were just recovering from the repercussions of the devastating Easter Sunday bombings of 2019.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, Colombo City Restaurant Collective (CCRC) President Harpo Gooneratne shared the sentiment, stating that while they as an industry were harbouring expectations of considerable growth and stability in the sector in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit at a time while they were still in recovery.
He shared that the restaurant sector – a highly labour intensive industry that directly employs over 30,000 people while indirectly providing employment to many others such as delivery persons, suppliers,etc. – is most concerned about the impact the current situation would have on the ecosystem that was once established and strengthened over the years with diligence and dedication.
The ground situation
The restaurant industry is known to have their finger on the pulse, with real-time responses to the trends and movements of the world. Therefore, it comes with no surprise that it would be one of the hardest-hit industries from a global shift of this calibre.
“Our industry has currently ground to a near-standstill and seems like it will continue to have an adverse impact on the restaurant industry for at least a period of one year,” Goonaratne said, adding that the decline in tourist arrivals and related businesses as well as the expected downturn in the overall economic condition are further expected to have a seriously negative impact on the industry, thus impacting the balance of payments of the whole restaurant industry.
The Founder and CEO of Harpo’s Hotels, Cafes, and Restaurants, Goonaratne noted that on a personal front the operations have largely been shut down as they are unable to operate on a daily basis in a majority of his establishments, with the exception of The Commons Coffee House which continues to provide delivery services through the company’s own delivery service.
Regardless, he mentioned such examples are inconsequential in the long run as about 80% of the workforce are low wage earners from rural areas; the labour force consists of a combination of a few specialised but mainly semi and unskilled employees whose sole livelihood is the income generated from their jobs in the restaurant industry, according to Goonaratne.
Looking forward to a helping hand
Considering these circumstances, the CCRC, as the only organisation registered with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) representing all the restaurateurs and the industry in general, has collectively made an appeal to the Government for support on a number of areas.
While commending the Government on behalf of all the restaurant operators in the country for the exemplary measures taken so far to curb the pandemic, the collective conveys that any assistance from the Government would be of immense support to tide over the present crisis and humbly requests the authorities to kindly offer a reasonable solution to uplift the industry.
The collective appeal consists of a number of areas seeking assistance from the Government, such as proposals for amendments of proposed government action plans that are currently underway including the working capital loans programme already announced by the Government, requesting it not be subjected to any collateral guarantees but be based on a feasible business plan.
Additionally, there had been a request for a government or banking sector-supported wage assistance programme, as it is difficult for the collective to handle it on their own, so as to allow those in the industry to safeguard the jobs of all the employed in the restaurant sector until they are able and allowed to resume business operations. Similarly, there had been a request for a government-backed rent assistance programme that would ensure they would have premises to resume business once conditions allow it, thereby also requesting an exemption from rates and utilities for the non-operational period.
As has been proposed by many other industries along with the general public as a necessity, the collective has requested a suspension on all existing debts inclusive of loans, leases, and any outstanding operational debt and cumulative interest for a suitably proposed period as well as a restructure of loans repayment periods.
On a final note, the CCRC has also made requests for the introduction of reasonable local government and national-level tax concessions for the current fiscal year, a moratorium on late payment penalties on EPF/ETF payments until April 2021, and a reduction of taxes on imported food items so that prices could be made affordable to the consumer.
The current crisis has all the global industries into an unfortunate standstill and Sri Lanka in particular is bearing the brunt of it considering its circumstances. As the island’s industries inclusive of the business communities that rely on the leisure and tourism industry gear up to face the oncoming difficult times, it is commendable to see communities taking a stand and further assistance given by the authorities as they would go a long way.