Sri Lanka is a lower middle-income country with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of about $ 3,682 (according to the Central Banka of Sri Lanka (CBSL) and a population of approximately 22 million in 2020. The island’s strategic location off the southern coast of India along the main east-west Indian Ocean shipping lanes gives Sri Lanka a regional logistical advantage.
After 30 years of civil war, Sri Lanka is transitioning from a predominantly rural-based economy to a more urbanized economy focused on manufacturing and services. Sri Lanka’s export economy is dominated by apparel and cash-crop exports, mainly tea, but technology service exports are a significant growth sector. Prior to the April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday attacks, the tourism industry was rapidly expanding, with Lonely Planet naming Sri Lanka its top travel destination in 2019. However, the attacks led to a significant decline in tourism that continued into 2020 due to COVID-19 and the government’s related decision to close its main international airport for commercial passenger arrivals in March 2020. The airport reopened for limited commercial passengers in January 2021, but newly reimposed travel restrictions are resulting in severe contractions for both the tourism and apparel export sectors with potential follow-on impacts in related sectors including services, construction, and agriculture. Tourism revenue dropped 73 percent year-over-year (YoY) in 2020 while apparel exports dropped 15.6 percent in the same period. However, official figures for migrant labor remittances, another significant source of foreign exchange, increased to $7.1 billion in 2020 due to the collapse of informal money transfer systems during the pandemic, despite the job losses to Sri Lankan migrant workers, especially in the Middle East.
The administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected in November 2019, has largely promoted pro-business positions, including announcing tax benefits for new investments to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). As outlined in its election manifesto, the Rajapaksa government’s economic goals, include positioning Sri Lanka as an export-oriented economic hub at the center of the Indian Ocean (with government control of strategic assets such as Sri Lankan Airlines), improving trade logistics, attracting export-oriented FDI, and boosting firms’ abilities to compete in global markets. However, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns brought new economic challenges, forcing the government to adapt policies to the situation on the ground. In April 2020, the Ministry of Finance restricted imports of luxury and semi-luxury consumer products such as consumer durables, motor vehicles, and the import of certain agricultural products as a means of saving foreign reserves and creating employment in labor intensive agriculture. With a debt-to-GDP ratio now above 100 percent (of which 60 percent is foreign debt), Sri Lanka is facing a potential liquidity crisis, exacerbated by declining export receipts due to the pandemic. Exports of goods fell 15.6 percent to $10 billion in 2020, down from $12 billion in 2019. Exports of services fell roughly 60 percent to $3 billion in 2020 down from $7.5 billion in 2019.
FDI in Sri Lanka has largely been concentrated in tourism, real estate, mixed development projects, ports, and telecommunications in recent years. With a growing middle class, investors also see opportunities in franchising, information technology services, and light manufacturing for the domestic market. The Board of Investment (BOI) is the primary government authority responsible for investment, particularly foreign investment, aiming to provide “one-stop” services for foreign investors. The BOI is committed to facilitating FDI and can offer project incentives, arrange utility services, assist in obtaining resident visas for expatriate personnel, and facilitate import and export clearances. However, Sri Lanka’s import regime is one of the most complex and protectionist in the world. Sri Lanka ranks 99th out of 190 countries on the World Bank’s Doing Business Index and ranks very poorly in several areas, including contract enforcement (164 out of 190); paying taxes (142/190); registering property (138/190); and obtaining credit (132/190). Sri Lanka ranks well in protecting minority investors, coming in at 28/190 in 2020.
Sri Lanka’s GDP contracted 3.6 percent to approximately $81 billion in 2020 due to COVID-19, an improvement on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projection for a 4.6 percent contraction. FDI fell to approximately $550 million in 2020, significantly less than the $1.2 billion in 2019 and $2.3 billion in 2018. The IMF projects a four percent growth in 2021.
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
Sri Lanka is a constitutional multiparty socialist republic. In 1978, Sri Lanka began moving away from socialist, protectionist policies and opening up to foreign investment, although changes in government are often accompanied by swings in economic policy. While the incumbent government largely promoted pro-business positions, including announcing tax benefits for new investments to attract FDI, the government also made interventionist policies to arrest the ongoing economic fallout from COVID-19. This in turn has altered the field of foreign direct investment towards manufacturing intended to the domestic market.
The BOI (www.investsrilanka.com), an autonomous statutory agency, is the primary government authority responsible for investment, particularly foreign investment, with BOI aiming to provide “one-stop” services for foreign investors. BOI’s Single Window Investment Facilitation Taskforce (SWIFT) helps facilitate the investment approvals process and works with other agencies in order to expedite the process. BOI can grant project incentives, arrange utility services, assist in obtaining resident visas for expatriate personnel, and facilitate import and export clearances.
Importers to Sri Lanka face high barriers. According to a World Bank study, Sri Lanka’s import regime is one of the most complex and protectionist in the world. U.S. stakeholders have raised concerns the government does not adequately consult with the private sector prior to implementing new taxes or regulations – citing the severe import restrictions imposed as a reaction to COVID-19 as an example. These restrictions, quickly imposed without consulting the private sector, further complicated Sri Lanka’s import regime. Similarly, stakeholders have raised concerns that the government does not allow adequate time to implement new regulations. Additionally, the Sri Lankan government has banned the importation of several “non-essential” items since April 2020 in an attempt to curtail foreign exchange outflow as the Sri Lankan rupee (LKR) depreciated around five percent year-to-date in 2021 and is expected to come under further pressure.
Sri Lanka is a challenging place to do business, with high transaction costs aggravated by an unpredictable economic policy environment, inefficient delivery of government services, and opaque government procurement practices. Investors noted concerns over the potential for contract repudiation, cronyism, and de facto or de jure expropriation. Public sector corruption is a significant challenge for U.S. firms operating in Sri Lanka and a constraint on foreign investment. While the country generally has adequate laws and regulations to combat corruption, enforcement is weak, inconsistent, and selective. U.S. stakeholders and potential investors expressed particular concern about corruption in large infrastructure projects and in government procurement. The government pledged to address these issues, but the COVID-19 response remains its primary concern. Historically, the main political parties do not pursue corruption cases against each other after gaining or losing political positions.
While Sri Lanka is a challenging place for businesses to operate, investors report that starting a business in Sri Lanka is relatively simple and quick, especially when compared to other lower middle-income markets. However, scalability is a problem due to the lack of skilled labor, a relatively small talent pool and constraints on land ownership and use. Investors note that employee retention is generally good in Sri Lanka, but numerous public holidays, a reluctance of employees to work at night, a lack of labor mobility, and difficulty recruiting women decrease efficiency and increase start-up times. A leading international consulting firm claims the primary issue affecting investment is lack of policy consistency.
Limits on Foreign Control and Private Ownership
Foreign ownership is allowed in most sectors, although foreigners are prohibited from owning land with a few limited exceptions. Foreigners can invest in company shares, debt securities, government securities, and unit trusts. Many investors point to land acquisition as the biggest challenge for starting a new business. Generally, Sri Lanka prohibits the sale of public and private land to foreigners and to enterprises with foreign equity exceeding 50 percent. However, on July 30, 2018, Sri Lanka amended the Land (Restriction of Alienation) Act of 2014 to allow foreign companies listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE) to acquire land. Foreign companies not listed on the CSE—but engaged in banking, financial, insurance, maritime, aviation, advanced technology, or infrastructure development projects identified and approved as strategic development projects—may also be exempted from restrictions imposed by the Land Act of 2014 on a case-by-case basis.
The government owns approximately 80 percent of the land in Sri Lanka, including the land housing most tea, rubber, and coconut plantations, which are leased out, typically on 50-year terms. Private land ownership is limited to fifty acres per person. Although state land for industrial use is usually allotted on a 50-year lease, the government may approve 99-year leases on a case-by-case basis depending on the project. Many land title records were lost or destroyed during the civil war, and significant disputes remain over land ownership, particularly in the North and East. The government has started a program to return property taken by the government during the war to residents in the North and East.
The government allows up to 100 percent foreign investment in any commercial, trading, or industrial activity except for the following heavily regulated sectors: banking, air transportation; coastal shipping; large scale mechanized mining of gems; lotteries; manufacture of military hardware, military vehicles, and aircraft; alcohol; toxic, hazardous, or carcinogenic materials; currency; and security documents. However, select strategic sectors, such as railway freight transportation and electricity transmission and distribution, are closed to any foreign capital participation. Foreign investment is also not permitted in the following businesses: pawn brokering; retail trade with a capital investment of less than $5 million; and coastal fishing.
Foreign investments in the following areas are restricted to 40 percent ownership: a) production for export of goods subject to international quotas; b) growing and primary processing of tea, rubber, and coconut, c) cocoa, rice, sugar, and spices; d) mining and primary processing of non-renewable national resources, e) timber based industries using local timber, f) deep-sea fishing, g) mass communications, h) education, i) freight forwarding, j) travel services, k) businesses providing shipping services.
In areas where foreign investments are permitted, Sri Lanka treats foreign investors the same as domestic investors. However, corruption reportedly may make it difficult for U.S. firms to compete against foreign bidders not subject to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act when competing for public tenders.
The Department of Registrar of Companies (www.drc.gov.lk) is responsible for business registration. Online registration (http://eroc.drc.gov.lk/) was recently introduced and registration averages four to five days. In addition to the Registrar of Companies, businesses must register with the Inland Revenue Department to obtain a taxpayer identification number (TIN) for payment of taxes and with the Department of Labor for social security payments.
The government supports outward investment, and the Export Development Board offers subsidies for companies seeking to establish overseas operations, including branch offices related to exports. New outward investment regulations came into effect November 20, 2017. Sri Lankan companies, partnerships, and individuals are permitted to invest in shares, units, debt securities, and sovereign bonds overseas subject to limits specified by the new Foreign Exchange Regulations. Sri Lankan companies are also permitted to establish overseas companies. Investments over the specified limit require the Central Bank Monetary Board’s approval. All investments must be made through outward investment accounts (OIA). All income from investments overseas must be routed through the same OIA within three months of payment. (Note: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sri Lankan government introduced a series of measures attempting to ease pressure on the Sri Lankan rupee. These measures included a temporary suspension on OIA transactions and additional foreign exchange controls.)
2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties
Sri Lanka has signed investment protection agreements with 26 countries, including the United States (which came into force in May 1993). Pursuant to the Constitution, investment protection agreements enjoy the force of law and legislative, executive, or administrative actions cannot contravene them.
Sri Lanka has signed free trade agreements (FTAs) with India, Pakistan, and Singapore, and is negotiating an FTA with China.
The FTAs with India and Pakistan only cover trade in goods. They provide for duty-free entry and duty preferences for manufactured and agricultural goods. A domestic value addition of 35 percent is required to qualify for concessions granted pursuant to the FTAs.
The Singapore-Sri Lanka FTA came into force on May 1, 2018, and covers: investment, goods, services, trade facilitation, government procurement, telecommunications, e-commerce, and dispute settlement. Sri Lanka eliminated customs duties on 50 percent of tariff lines, which will progressively increase to 80 percent over 14 years. Sri Lanka will not reduce or eliminate duties on the remaining 20 percent of tariff lines.
Sri Lanka is a member of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA).
The United States-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) is the primary forum for bilateral trade and investment discussions, including the protection of worker rights.
Sri Lanka has signed bilateral agreements with an additional 43 countries.
Sri Lanka passed an Inland Revenue Act in 2017. The law, which came into force on April 1, 2018, provides a tax framework to provide increased certainty to investors and taxpayers; modernize rules related to cross-border transactions to address tax avoidance; broaden the tax base; and expand income tax sources. A three-tier corporate tax structure was also introduced with a 40 percent rate for businesses in the liquor, tobacco, and betting and gaming industries. The law also introduced capital gains tax and fines and/or imprisonment for tax evasion and personal liability for company directors.
3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
Many foreign and domestic investors view the regulatory system as unpredictable with outdated regulations, rigid administrative procedures, and excessive leeway for bureaucratic discretion. BOI is responsible for informing potential investors about laws and regulations affecting operations in Sri Lanka, including new regulations and policies that are frequently developed to protect specific sectors or stakeholders. Effective enforcement mechanisms are sometimes lacking, and investors cite coordination problems between BOI and relevant line agencies. Lack of sufficient technical capacity within the government to review financial proposals for private infrastructure projects also creates problems during the tender process.
Corporate financial reporting requirements in Sri Lanka are covered in a number of laws, and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka (ICASL) is responsible for setting and updating accounting standards to comply with current accounting and audit standards adopted by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) and the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB). Sri Lanka follows International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) for financial reporting purposes set by the IASB. Sri Lankan accounting standards are applicable for all banks, companies listed on the stock exchange, and all other large and medium-sized companies in Sri Lanka. Accounts must be audited by professionally qualified auditors holding ICASL membership. ICASL also has published accounting standards for small companies. The Accounting Standards Monitoring Board (ASMB) is responsible for monitoring compliance with Sri Lankan accounting and auditing standards.
Overall legislative authority lies with Parliament. Line ministries draft bills and, together with regulatory authorities, are responsible for crafting draft regulations, which may require approval from the National Economic Council, the Cabinet, and/or Parliament. Bills are published in the government gazette http://documents.gov.lk/en/home.php at least seven days before being placed on the Order Paper of the Parliament (the first occasion the public is officially informed of proposed laws) with drafts being treated as confidential prior to this. Any member of the public can challenge a bill in the Supreme Court if they do so within one week of its placement on the Order Paper of the Parliament. If the Supreme Court orders amendments to a bill, such amendments must be incorporated before the bill can be debated and passed. Regulations are made by administrative agencies and are published in a government gazette, similar to a U.S. Federal Notice. In addition to regulations, some rules are made through internal circulars, which may be difficult to locate.
The Central Bank and the Finance Ministry published information on Central Government debt including contingent liabilities and government finance. Central Bank publishes information on debt of major SOE’s. Debt obligations are available online in the Central Bank Annual Report; Fiscal Management Report of the Finance Ministry; Annual Report of the Ministry of Finance. Information on contingent liabilities is available in the Annual Report of the Ministry of Finance. Since 2018, the Central Bank published guaranteed debt and central government debt annually.
International Regulatory Considerations
Sri Lanka is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and has made WTO notifications on customs valuation, agriculture, import licensing, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures, and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. Sri Lanka ratified the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) in 2016 and a National Trade Facilitation Committee was tasked with undertaking reforms needed to operationalize the TFA. The WTO conducted a review of the TFA in June 2019 in which Sri Lankan officials noted challenges related to accessing technical assistance and capacity building support for implementation of TFA recommendations.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Sri Lanka’s legal system reflects diverse cultural influences. Criminal law is fundamentally British-based while civil law is Roman-Dutch. Laws on marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other issues can also vary based on religious affiliation. Sri Lankan commercial law is almost entirely statutory, reflecting British colonial law, although amendments have largely kept pace with subsequent legal changes in the United Kingdom. Several important legislative enactments regulate commercial issues: the BOI Law; the Intellectual Property Act; the Companies Act; the Securities and Exchange Commission Act; the Banking Act; the Inland Revenue Act; the Industrial Promotion Act; and the Consumer Affairs Authority Act.
Sri Lanka’s court system consists of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, provincial High Courts, and the Courts of First Instance (district courts with general civil jurisdiction) and Magistrate Courts (with criminal jurisdiction). Provincial High Courts have original, appellate, and reversionary criminal jurisdiction. The Court of Appeal is an intermediate appellate court with a limited right of appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court exercises final appellate jurisdiction for all criminal and civil cases. Citizens may apply directly to the Supreme Court for protection if they believe any government or administrative action has violated their fundamental human rights.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
The principal law governing foreign investment is Law No. 4 (known as the BOI Act), created in 1978 and amended in 1980, 1983, 1992, 2002, 2009 and 2012. The BOI Act and implementing regulations provide for two types of investment approvals, one for concessions and one without concessions. Under Section 17 of the Act, the BOI is empowered to approve companies satisfying minimum investment criteria with such companies eligible for duty-free import concessions. The BOI acts as the “one-stop-shop” to facilitate all the requirements of the foreign investors to Sri Lanka. Investment approval under Section 16 of the BOI Act permits companies to operate under the “normal” laws and applies to investments that do not satisfy eligibility incentive criteria. From April 1, 2017, Inland Revenue Act No. 24 of 2017 created an investment incentive regime granting a concessionary tax rate (for specific sectors) and capital allowances (depreciation) based on capital investments. Commercial Hub Regulation No 1 of 2013 applies to transshipment trade, offshore businesses, and logistic services. The Strategic Development Project Act of 2008 (SDPA) provides tax incentives for large projects that the Cabinet identifies as “strategic development projects.”
Sri Lanka does not have a specific competition law. Instead, the BOI or respective regulatory authorities may review transactions for competition-related concerns. In March of 2017, Parliament approved the “Anti-Dumping and Countervailing” and “Safeguard Measures” Acts. These laws provide a framework against unfair trade practices and import surges and allow government trade agencies to initiate investigations relating to unfair business practices to impose additional and/or countervailing duties.
Expropriation and Compensation
Since economic liberalization policies began in 1978, the government has not expropriated a foreign investment, with the last expropriation dispute resolved in 1998. The land acquisition law (Land Acquisition Act of 1950) empowers the government to take private land for public purposes with compensation based on a government valuation. Still, there have been reported cases of the military taking over businesses in the North and East part of the country, by claiming they were on government land, with little or no compensation.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Sri Lanka is a member state to the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID convention) and a signatory to the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention) without reservations.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
Sri Lanka signed a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) with the United States in 1991. Over the past ten years, according to the United Nations, two investment disputes in Sri Lanka have involved foreign investors: 1) a dispute between a major European bank and the national Ceylon Petroleum Corporation regarding an oil hedging agreement, concluded with the proceeding being decided in favor of the foreign bank; and 2) an arbitration involving British and local investors (with the Attorney General as respondent) regarding a tourism development project that concluded in 2020 with the ICSID tribunal dismissing the $20 million claim for failure to prove the claim.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Sri Lanka ranks very poorly on contract enforcement (164 out of 190) on the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators. As a result, many investors prefer arbitration over litigation. Sri Lanka has a community mediation system, which primarily handles non-commercial mediations and commercial disputes where the amount in controversy is less than $3,333.00. There is no-mediation system for commercial disputes over that threshold amount. The Institute for the Development of Commercial Law and Practice (ICLP) (www.iclparbitrationcentre.com) and the Sri Lanka National Arbitration Centre (www.slnarbcentre.com) also help settle private commercial disputes through arbitration.
The Companies Act and the Insolvency Ordinance provide for dissolution of insolvent companies, but there is no mechanism to facilitate the reorganization of financially troubled companies. Other laws make it difficult to keep a struggling company solvent. The Termination of Employment of Workmen Special Provisions Act (TEWA), for example, makes it difficult to fire or lay off workers who have been employed for more than six months for any reason other than serious, well-documented disciplinary problems. In the absence of comprehensive bankruptcy laws, extra-judicial powers granted by law to financial institutions protect the rights of creditors. A creditor may petition the court to dissolve the company if the company cannot make payments on debts in excess of LKR 50,000 ($320.00). Lenders are also empowered to foreclose on collateral without court intervention. However, loans below LKR 5 million ($32,000) are exempt, and lenders cannot foreclose on collateral provided by guarantors to a loan.
Sri Lanka ranked 94 out of 190 countries in the resolving insolvency index in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020. Resolving insolvency takes, on average, 1.7 years at a cost equivalent to 10 percent of the estate’s value.
4. Industrial Policies
The Inland Revenue Act of 2017, implemented April 1, 2018, includes concessionary corporate tax rates for investments in certain sectors and increased capital allowances (depreciation) on capital investments.
As per the 2021 budget revisions the standard rate of corporate tax is 14 percent for: a) small and medium companies (with an annual income of less than LKR 500 million or $3.2 million); b) companies exporting goods and services; and c) companies engaged in education services; promotion of tourism; d) companies engaged in construction and e) companies engaged in healthcare services. Companies engaged in information technology services and agricultural business are exempt from taxes. A 40 percent corporate tax rate applies to companies engaged in gaming, liquor, and tobacco related businesses. An 18 percent tax on manufacturing and 24 percent tax on Trading, banking, finance, insurance, and similar businesses.
Sri Lanka has 15 free trade zones, also called “export processing zones,” which are administered by the BOI. Foreign investors have the same investment opportunities as local entities in these zones. Export-oriented companies located within and outside the zones are eligible to import project-related material and inputs free of customs import duties although such imports may be subject to other taxes.
In the past, firms preferred to locate their factories near the Colombo harbor or airport to reduce transportation time and cost. However, excessive concentration of industries around Colombo has caused heavy traffic, higher real estate prices, environmental pollution, and a scarcity of labor. The BOI and the government now encourage export-oriented factories to locate in industrial zones farther from Colombo, although Sri Lanka’s limited road network create other challenges for outlying zones.
In 2019, the China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) completed the reclamation of 269 hectares of land adjacent to Colombo’s port and historic downtown to form the Colombo Port City Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which government officials describe as a future “international commercial and financial hub.” CHEC invested $1.4 billion in the land reclamation and basic infrastructure of the Port City, in return for which it will have control, via lease, of 116 of the 178 total hectares of marketable land on the site, the balance of which the government will control. Parliament approved on May 20, 2021 legislation to govern the SEZ and establish a commission to act as promoter, manager, regulator, and “single window investment facilitator” to attract foreign direct investment to the project. The legislation also includes tax exemptions and other incentives for potential investors. The legislation was amended prior to approval by a simple majority in Parliament following a Supreme Court ruling on multiple legal challenges to the bill’s constitutionality, though concerns remain about the potential risk of illicit financial flows.
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
Employment of foreign personnel is permitted when there is a demonstrated shortage of qualified local labor. Technical and managerial personnel are in short supply, and this shortage is likely to continue in the near future. Foreign laborers do not experience significant problems in obtaining work or residence permits. Sri Lanka has seen a rise in foreign laborers, mainly in construction sites, with some reportedly working without proper work visas. Foreign investors who remit at least $250,000 can qualify for a five-year resident visa under the Resident Guest Scheme Visa Program: (http://www.immigration.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=154&Itemid=200&lang=en). Sri Lanka offers dual citizenship status to Sri Lankans who have obtained foreign citizenship in seven designated countries, including the United States. Tourist and business visas are granted for one month with possible extensions.
Sri Lanka has no specific requirements for foreign information technology providers to turn over source code or provide access to surveillance. Provisions relating to interception of communications for cybercrime issues are subject to court supervision under the Computer Crimes Act (CCA) of 2007. Sri Lanka became a party to the Budapest Cybercrime Convention in 2015, and safeguards based on the convention are in force. Although there is no comprehensive legislative protection of electronic data, the CCA has a provision to protect data and information. The government is currently formulating data protection legislation. There is no ban on the sale of electronic data for marketing purposes.
5. Protection of Property Rights
Secured interests in real property in Sri Lanka are generally recognized and enforced, but many investors claim protection can be flimsy. A reliable registration system exists for recording private property including land, buildings, and mortgages, although problems reportedly exist due to fraud and forged documents. In the World Bank’s 2020 “Doing Business Index,” Sri Lanka ranked 138 out of 190 countries for registering a property. Property registration required, on average, completion of eight procedures lasting 39 days. Sri Lanka prohibits the sale of land to foreign nationals and to enterprises with foreign equity exceeding 50 percent.
Intellectual Property Rights
While IPR enforcement is improving, counterfeit goods, particularly imports, are still widely available, and music and software piracy are reportedly widespread. Foreign and U.S. companies in the recording, software, movie, clothing, and consumer product industries claim that inadequate IPR protection and enforcement weaken their businesses in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has a comprehensive IPR law, and several offenders have been charged or convicted. The government points to the new information technology (IT) policy that requires government agencies to use licensed or open-source software as proof of IPR improvements (although the government has yet to put systems in place to monitor compliance with the policy) and some sectors – including apparel, software, tobacco, and electronics have reported success in combating trademark counterfeiting through the courts. Still, judicial redress remains time-consuming and challenging. Better coordination among enforcement authorities and government institutions – such as the National Intellectual Property Office (NIPO), Sri Lanka Customs, and Sri Lanka Police as well as more trained staff and resources – is needed to strengthen Sri Lanka’s IPR regime. Although infringement of intellectual property rights is a punishable offense under the IP law with criminal and civil penalties, Sri Lanka does not track and report on seizures of counterfeit goods.
Sri Lanka is a party to major intellectual property agreements. Sri Lanka adopted an intellectual property law in 2003 intended to meet U.S.-Sri Lanka bilateral IPR agreements and trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) obligations. The law governs copyrights and related rights; industrial designs; patents, trademarks, and service marks; trade names; layout designs of integrated circuits; geographical indications; unfair competition; databases; computer programs; and undisclosed information (e.g., trade secrets). All trademarks, designs, industrial designs, and patents must be registered with the Director General of Intellectual Property. No legal provisions exist for registration of copyrights and trade secrets.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) governs the CSE, unit trusts, stockbrokers, listed public companies, margin traders, underwriters, investment managers, credit rating agencies, and securities depositories. Foreign portfolio investment is encouraged. Foreign investors can purchase up to 100 percent of equity in Sri Lankan companies in permitted sectors. Investors may open an Inward Investment Account (IIA) with any commercial bank in Sri Lanka to bring in investments. As of August 30, 2020, 289 companies representing 20 business sectors are listed on the CSE. As stock market liquidity is limited, investors need to manage exit strategies carefully.
In accordance with its IMF Article VIII obligations, the government and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) generally refrain from restrictions on current international transfers. When the government experiences balance of payments difficulties, it tends to impose controls on foreign exchange transactions. Due to pressures on the balance of payments caused by the COVID-19 economic crisis, Sri Lanka took several measures to restrict imports and limit outward capital transactions.
The state consumes over 50 percent of the country’s domestic financial resources and has a virtual monopoly on the management and use of long-term savings. This inhibits the free flow of financial resources to product and factor markets. High budget deficits have caused interest rates to rise and resulted in higher inflation. On a year-to-year basis, inflation was approximately 5.1 percent in March of 2021, and the average prime lending rate was 9.91 percent. Retained profits finance a significant portion of private investment in Sri Lanka with commercial banks as the principal source of bank finance and bank loans as the most widely used credit instrument for the private sector. Large companies also raise funds through corporate debentures. Credit ratings are mandatory for all deposit-taking institutions and all varieties of debt instruments. Local companies can borrow from foreign sources. FDI finances about 6 percent of overall investment. Foreign investors can access credit on the local market and are free to raise foreign currency loans.
Money and Banking System
Sri Lanka has a diversified banking system. There are 25 commercial banks: 13 local and 12 foreign. In addition, there are seven specialized local banks. Citibank N.A. is the only U.S. bank operating in Sri Lanka. Several domestic private commercial banks have substantial government equity acquired through investment agencies controlled by the government. Banking has expanded to rural areas, and by end of 2020 there were over 3,619 commercial bank branches and over 6,176 Automated Teller Machines throughout the country. Both resident and non-resident foreign nationals can open foreign currency banking accounts. However, non-resident foreign nationals are not eligible to open Sri Lankan Rupee accounts.
CBSL is responsible for supervision of all banking institutions and has driven improvements in banking regulations, provisioning, and public disclosure of banking sector performance. Credit ratings are mandatory for all banks. CBSL introduced accounting standards corresponding to International Financial Reporting Standards for banks on January 1, 2018, and the application of the standards substantially increased impairment provisions on loans. The migration to the Basel III capital standards began in July of 2017 on a staggered basis, with full implementation was kicking in on January 1, 2019 and some banks having had to boost capital to meet full implementation of Basel III requirements. In addition, banks must increase capital to meet CBSL’s new minimum capital requirements deadline, which is set for December 31, 2022. A staggered application of capital provisions for smaller banks unable to meet capital requirements immediately will likely be allowed.
Total assets of the banking industry stood at LKR 14,666 billion ($75.2 billion) as of December 31, 2020. The two fully state-owned commercial banks – Bank of Ceylon and People’s Bank – are significant players, accounting for about 33 percent of all banking assets. The Bank of Ceylon currently holds a non-performing loan (NPL) ratio of 4.98 percent (up from 4.79 percent in 2019). The People’s Bank currently holds a NPL ratio of 3.85 percent (up from 3.68 percent in 2019). Both banks have significant exposure to SOEs but, these banks are implicitly guaranteed by the state. The six-month debt moratorium issued by the CBSL for distressed borrowers will expired in March 2021, the impact of this is yet to be reflected on the banking sector NPL
In October 2019, Sri Lanka was removed from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) gray list after making significant changes to its Anti-Money Laundering/Countering the Finance of Terrorism (AML/CFT) laws. CBSL is exploring the adoption of blockchain technologies in its financial transactions and appointed two committees to investigate the possible adoption of blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
Sri Lanka has a rapidly growing alternative financial services industry that includes finance companies, leasing companies, and microfinance institutes. In response, CBSL has established an enforcement unit to strengthen the regulatory and supervisory framework of non-banking financial institutions. Credit ratings are mandatory for finance companies as of October 1, 2018. The government also directed banks to register with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to comply with the U.S. Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Almost all commercial banks have registered with the IRS.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
Sri Lanka generally has investor-friendly conversion and transfer policies. Companies say they can repatriate funds relatively easily. In accordance with its Article VIII obligations as a member of the IMF, Sri Lanka liberalized exchange controls on current account transactions in 1994 and, in 2010-2012, the government relaxed exchange controls on several categories of capital account transactions. A new Foreign Exchange Act, No. 12 of 2017, came into operation on November 20, 2017 and further liberalized capital account transactions to simplify current account transactions. Foreign investors are required to open Inward Investment Accounts (IIA) to transfer funds required for capital investments but there are no restrictions or limitations placed on foreign investors in converting, transferring, or repatriating funds associated with an investment through an IIA in any foreign currency designated by CBSL.
No barriers exist, legal or otherwise, to remittance of corporate profits and dividends for foreign enterprises since 2017 when Sri Lanka relaxed investment remittance policies with the new Foreign Exchange Act. Remittances are done through IIAs. There are no waiting periods for remitting investment returns, interest, and principal on private foreign debt, lease payments, royalties, and management fees provided there is sufficient evidence to prove the originally invested funds were remitted into the country through legal channels. Exporters must repatriate export proceeds within 120 days.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
Sri Lanka does not have a sovereign wealth fund. The government manages and controls large retirement funds from private sector employees and uses these funds for budgetary purposes (through investments in government securities), stock market investments, and corporate debenture investments.
7. State-Owned Enterprises
SOEs are active in transport (buses and railways, ports and airport management, airline operations); utilities such as electricity; petroleum imports and refining; water supply; retail; banking; telecommunications; television and radio broadcasting; newspaper publishing; and insurance. Following the end of the civil war in 2009, Sri Lankan armed forces began operating domestic air services, tourist resorts, and farms crowding out some private investment. In total, there are over 400 SOEs of which 55 have been identified by the Sri Lanka Treasury as strategically important, and 345 have been identified as non-commercial.
The government currently have not adopted a strategy of privatizing SOEs. Several attempts to sell the government’s stake in the heavily indebted national carrier, Sri Lankan Airlines, were not successful. The government is also seeking to improve the efficiency of SOEs through private sector management practices. SOE labor unions and opposition political parties often oppose privatization and are particularly averse to foreign ownership. Privatization through the sale of shares in the stock market is likely to be less problematic.
8. Responsible Business Conduct
The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is more widely recognized among Sri Lankan companies than Responsible Business Conduct (RBC). Leading companies in Sri Lanka actively promote CSR, and some SMEs have also started to promote CSR. CSR Sri Lanka is an apex body initiated by 40 leading companies to foster CSR. The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce actively promotes CSR among its membership. The SEC, together with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka, published a Code of Best Practices on Corporate Governance in order to establish good corporate governance practices in Sri Lankan capital markets. Separate government agencies are tasked with protecting individuals from adverse business impacts in relation to labor rights, consumer protection, and environmental protections, although the effectiveness of these agencies is questioned by some. The government has not launched an initiative to promote RBC principles, such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The government also does not participate in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) although Sri Lanka has mineral resources including graphite, mineral sands, and gemstones.
While Sri Lanka has generally adequate laws and regulations to combat corruption, enforcement is often weak and inconsistent. U.S. firms identify corruption as a major constraint on foreign investment, but generally not a major threat to operating in Sri Lanka once contracts have been established. The business community claims that corruption has the greatest effect on investors in large projects and on those pursuing government procurement contracts. Projects geared toward exports face fewer problems. A Right to Information Act came into effect in February of 2017 which increased government transparency.
The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC or Bribery Commission) is the main body responsible for investigating bribery allegations, but it is widely considered ineffective and has reportedly made little progress pursuing cases of national significance. The law states that a public official’s offer or acceptance of a bribe constitutes a criminal offense and carries a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment and fine. Bribery laws extend to family members of public officials, but political parties are not covered. A bribe by a local company to a foreign official is also not covered by the Bribery Act and the government does not require private companies to establish internal codes of conduct that prohibit bribery of public officials. Thus far, the Bribery Commission has focused on minor cases such as bribes taken by traffic police, wildlife officers, and school principals. These cases reportedly follow a pattern of targeting low-level offenses with prosecutions years after the offense followed by the imposition of sentences not always proportionate to the conduct (i.e., sometimes overly strict, other times overly lenient).
Government procurement regulations contain provisions on conflicts-of-interest in awarding contracts or government procurement. While financial crime investigators have developed a number of cases involving the misappropriation of government funds, these cases have often not moved forward due to lack of political will, political interference, and lack of investigative capacity. Sri Lanka signed and ratified the UN Convention against Corruption in March of 2004 and the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in 2006. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the OECD-ADB Anti-Corruption Regional Plan but has not joined the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.
Resources to Report Corruption
Contact at government agency responsible for combating corruption:
Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption
No 36, Malalasekara Mawatha, Colombo 7
T+94 112 596360 / 2595039 M+94 767011954
Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
The government’s military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE. During the civil war, the LTTE had a history of attacks against civilians, although none of the attacks were intentionally directed against U.S. citizens. On April 21, 2019, terrorist attacks targeted several churches and hotels throughout Colombo and in the eastern city of Batticaloa, killing more than 250 people, including over 40 foreigners including five Americans. In the aftermath of the attacks, the government imposed nationwide curfews and a temporary ban on some social media outlets.
Demonstrations occasionally take place in response to world events or local developments and are not uncommon near Western embassies. However, they tend to be well-contained with support from the Sri Lankan police.
Business related violence is not common and has little impact on the investment environment.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
Both local and international businesses have cited labor shortages as a major problem in Sri Lanka.In 2019, 8.5 million Sri Lankans were employed: 47 percent in services, 27 percent in industry and 25 percent in agriculture. Approximately 60 percent of the employed are in the informal sector. The government sector also employs over 1.4 million people.
Sri Lanka’s labor laws afford many employee protections. Many investors consider this legal framework somewhat rigid, making it difficult for companies to reduce their workforce even when market conditions warrant doing so. The cost of dismissing an employee in Sri Lanka is calculated based upon a percentage of wages averaged over 54 salary weeks, one of the highest in the world. There is no unemployment insurance or social safety net for laid off workers.
Labor is available at relatively low cost, though higher than in other South Asian countries. Sri Lanka’s labor force is largely literate (particularly in local languages), although weak in certain technical skills and English. The average worker has eight years of schooling, and two-thirds of the labor force is male. The government has initiated educational reforms to better prepare students for the labor market, including revamping technical and vocational education and training. While the number of students pursuing computer, accounting, business skills, and English language training programs is increasing, the demand for these skills still outpaces supply with many top graduates seeking employment outside of the country.
Youth are increasingly uninterested in labor-intensive manual jobs, and the construction, plantation, apparel, and other manufacturing industries report a severe shortage of workers. The garment industry reports up to a 40 percent staff turnover rate. Lack of labor mobility in the North and East is also a problem, with workers reluctant to leave their families and villages for employment elsewhere.
A significant proportion of the unemployed seek “white collar” employment, often preferring stable government jobs. Most sectors seeking employees offer manual or semi-skilled jobs or require technical or professional skills such as management, marketing, information technology, accountancy and finance, and English language proficiency. Investors often struggle to find employees with the requisite skills, a situation particularly noticeable as the tourism industry opens new hotels.
Many service sector companies rely on Sri Lankan engineers, researchers, technicians, and analysts to deliver high-quality, high-precision products and retention is reasonably good in the information technology sector. Foreign and local companies report a strong worker commitment to excellence in Sri Lanka, with rapid adaptation to quality standards.
Migrant Workers Abroad
There were an estimated 1.8 million Sri Lankan workers abroad in 2009/10, the last year the government published the figure. Remittances from migrant workers, averaged about $7.1 billion in 2020, making up Sri Lanka’s largest source of foreign exchange. Most of this labor force is unskilled (i.e., housemaids and factory laborers) and located primarily in the Middle East. Sri Lanka is also losing many of its skilled workers to more lucrative jobs abroad. Approximately 6,000 Sri Lankans work in Bangladeshi garment factories.
Foreign Workers in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has seen a gradual rise in foreign workers. Most foreign workers are from India, Bangladesh, and the PRC, many reportedly without proper work visas or other documentation.
Approximately 9.5 percent of the workforce is unionized, and union membership is declining. There are more than 2,000 registered trade unions (many of which have 50 or fewer members), and several federations. About 18 percent of labor in the industry and service sector is unionized. Most of the major trade unions are affiliated with political parties, creating a highly politicized labor environment. This is not the case for private companies, which typically only have one union or workers’ council to represent employees. There are also some independent unions. All workers, other than police, armed forces, prison service, and those in essential services, have the right to strike. The President can designate any industry an essential service. Workers may lodge complaints to protect their rights with the Commissioner of Labor, a labor tribunal, or the Supreme Court.
Unions represent workers in many large private firms, but workers in small-scale agriculture and small businesses typically do not belong to unions. The tea industry, however, is highly unionized, and public sector employees are unionized at high rates. Labor in the export processing zone (EPZ) enterprises tend to be represented by non-union worker councils, although unions also exist within the EPZs. The International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Freedom of Association Committee observed that Sri Lankan trade unions and worker councils can co-exist but advises that there should not be any discrimination against those employees choosing to join a union. The right of worker councils to engage in collective bargaining has been recognized by the ILO.
Collective bargaining exists but is not universal. The Employers’ Federation of Ceylon, the main employers’ association in Sri Lanka, assists member companies in negotiating with unions and signing collective bargaining agreements. While about a quarter of the 660 members of the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon are unionized, approximately 90 of these companies (including a number of foreign-owned firms) are bound by collective agreements. Several other companies have signed memorandums of understanding with trade unions. However, there are only a few collective bargaining agreements signed with companies located in EPZs.
All forms of forced and compulsory labor are prohibited. In March of 2016, the government introduced a national minimum wage set at LKR 10,000 ($54) per month or LKR 400 ($2.16) per day. Forty-four “wage boards” established by the Ministry of Labor set minimum wages and working conditions by sector and industry in consultation with unions and employers. The minimum wages established by these sector-specific wage boards tend to be higher than the minimum wage.
Sri Lankan law does not require equal pay for equal work for women. The law prohibits most full-time workers from regularly working more than 45 hours per week without receiving overtime (premium pay). In addition, the law stipulates a rest period of one hour per day. Regulations limit the maximum overtime hours to 15 per week. The law provides for paid annual holidays, sick leave, and maternity leave. Occupational health and safety regulations do not fully meet international standards.
Child labor is prohibited and virtually nonexistent in the organized sectors, although child labor occurs in informal sectors. The minimum legal age for employment is set at 16 years of age. The minimum age for employment in hazardous work is 18 years of age.
Sri Lanka is a member of the ILO and has ratified 31 international labor conventions, including all eight of the ILO’s core labor conventions. The ILO and the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon are working to improve awareness of core labor standards and the ILO also promotes its “Decent Work Agenda” program in Sri Lanka.
12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance and Development Finance Programs
Sri Lanka and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) signed an agreement in 1966 and subsequently renewed in 1993. This agreement provides investment insurance guarantees for U.S. investors. The Development Finance Corporation (DFC) succeeded OPIC in 2019 and is now party to the agreement. Sri Lanka is a founding member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) of the World Bank, which offers insurance against non-commercial risks.
Several countries provide bilateral project loans to the government, which assist firms from their countries to win projects. China has provided extensive loans, enabling Chinese companies to engage in numerous projects in Sri Lanka ranging from road and port construction to railway equipment supply.
13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics
Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source*
USG or international statistical source
USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD)
* Source for Host Country Data: Central Bank of Sri Lanka
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment
Outward Direct Investment
People’s Republic of China:
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- $500,000.
According to CBSL, the United States is the 13th largest foreign investor in Sri Lanka in terms of stock of foreign direct investment (FDI). The United States stock of FDI in 2020 was $274 million. FDI inflows from the United States were $13 million in 2020. United States FDI in Sri Lanka has remained steady over the past five years.
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.