The foreign employment sector is still the largest foreign exchange earner of the country. On an average, 250,000 persons annually migrate to foreign countries seeking better employment. Of the total number of Sri Lankans working abroad over 90% are employed in Middle Eastern countries, according to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment.
Commenting on the current situation of the foreign employment, Foreign Employment Ministry Secretary G.S. Withanage says the Government is paying more attention to promote foreign employment for skilled and professional categories.
In an interview with the ‘Dailymirror’, Mr. Withanage pointed out that only 2-3 % of the entire labour migration force have faced serious negative issues. “Unfortunately a few negative cases get highlighted in the media ignoring the 97% which are successful,” he pointed out.
Commenting on Sri Lankans who return after working abroad for years, particularly in low skilled jobs, Mr. Withanage said that the Ministry is in the process of drafting a sub policy in order to support these returnees to reintegrate into their own communities.
He emphasized that unless the local labour market is ready to provide similar economic benefits, people would continue to migrate for foreign employment.
He shared the following:
Isolation of Qatar by other Middle Eastern countries has created panic among Sri Lankans working in Qatar. Foreign Employment Minister Thalatha Athukorale in her statement said there are nearly 140,000 SL expats. How safe are our people caught up in the middle of this debacle?
It is a regional issue. Sri Lankans working in the country are not affected. If any Sri Lankan wishes to return home, they must inform the SL Embassy and can make necessary arrangements. Otherwise, Qatar, as a country, has taken up all measures to face any food shortages or essential supplies. We are constantly watching the progress. If a need arises to move Sri Lankans out of Qatar, we can arrange that quickly. Air travel is as usual to and from Qatar. So we do not see any threats to the Sri Lankan expats.
There are several stories we hear from time to time about men and women go missing after reaching Middle East seeking semi- skilled or unskilled jobs. What is exactly happening to these people?
This is actually a small percentage of the total number of people who migrate seeking foreign employment. It can be estimated around 2-3 % of the total. Unfortunately a few negative cases get highlighted in the media ignoring 97% which are successful. If you have a holistic view on the entire scenario of the Sri Lankan labour migration, majority of the people have enhanced their lives, elevated the living standards of their families, built houses, educated their children and so many successful stories behind them.
And, majority of those who encounter trouble in the foreign land, are people who have migrated without registering with the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE). They did not choose the proper path to migrate. We request the public that if they wish to migrate for foreign employment, they must first register themselves locally with the SLBFE.
Major legal barriers in obtaining ‘exit visa’
There were reports of hundreds of Sri Lankans returning home from Kuwait after being held up in safe houses sponsored by the Government. What are the steps taken by the Government to assist all the migrant workers living in the so-called safe houses to return home?
It is not only from Kuwait. We are making all possible efforts to bring Sri Lankans who are now living in safe houses in the ME countries. They were taken into the safe houses for various reasons, such as issues with their employers and breach of contract and some due to over staying their visa. To bring them back to Sri Lanka, there are legal barriers. For this we need to get the exit visa, and for that, we need clearance from the respective employers. We must have a proper dialogue, consultation with the employers in this matter. The employers must give his/her consent to return the employees home. These negotiations are done through our diplomatic missions and the labour counsellor attached to the mission in the respective countries. In most of these cases, employers do not allow the employees to return based on various reasons. Then we need to look for alternative methods. According to our diplomatic missions, if the employer does not give any valid reason, the option is to negotiate with the Ministry of Labour, the Department of Labour or any other Government authority responsible for labour issues in that country or its Police Department. With the clearance from the Department of Labour or the Police, we do have the possibility to proceed for the exit visa. This is a time consuming effort.
There is an allegation against the Government for not deploying adequate number of officials at our diplomatic missions to serve the large number of SL expats. The counsellors and officials appointed through your Ministry and the SLBFE seems inadequate to cater the SL expats in those countries. What steps the Ministry has taken to rectify this issue?
We are looking into this issue quite seriously. We want to increase the cadre. Yet, there are procedures and protocols to follow as a Government institute. We cannot increase the numbers independently. We need the approval of the Finance Ministry and the Management Services Department. We have already informed them in writing, giving them the reasons behind our request and had discussions with the relevant officials. The process is underway.We strongly believe there is a distinct possibility of our request being approved. After that we can start recruiting more suitable people to these posts. We may not be able to recruit the exact number of officials whom we need. Because it would incur a big cost.
A new system was proposed by Saudi Arabia at the fourth ministerial consultancy under the Abu Dhabi Dialogue held in Colombo recently to introduce a special system that can e-register migrant workers and trace their whereabouts online. Has it been implemented or what is the current situation?
This is the MUSANED system. It registers all details of the worker migrating to Saudi Arabia including details such as recruitment agency, employer’s name and address, worker’s details etc. A pilot project was conducted and found to be successful. The SL Govt was keen to get actively involved as it serves a safety net for the Sri Lankans. The results and observations of the pilot project were presented at the senior officials’ meetings and the Fourth Ministerial Consultation held under the Abu Dhabi Dialogue. (The international event was held in January, 2017 in Colombo) Representatives of Saudi Arabian delegation conducted an awareness programme to the Sri Lankan stakeholders including recruitment agencies. These data need to be filled online and a part of this responsibility is with the recruitment agencies. It is of utmost importance that correct data should be given.
Sri Lankan Government has given the consent for the system and we are waiting for Saudi Arabia to fully implement it. If this gets implemented soon, it will be for the benefit of both the countries.
Migrating men are requested a confirmation statement on family welfare
The Government implemented stringent regulations to the family background report which has an effect on women migrating as domestic aides and care givers. Is this now implemented?
Yes, it is. The Cabinet of Ministers took a decision to appoint a committee at the ground level headed by the Divisional Secretary and several other officials. The development officer of that particular division will analyse the forms filled by women who wish to migrate and forward a report to the Divisional Secretary. The committee headed by the Divisional Secretary will evaluate these reports and issue recommendations. Since it is a Cabinet decision, it is a directive by the Govt. We, as a ministry, are obliged to adhere to Govt decisions.
Majority of the women migrating for jobs are battered by poverty. This may be their best solution to stabilize the family economy. Currently there aren’t any successful programmes that provide employment for them. Doesn’t the family background report restrict a woman’s right to choose her employment and her right to economic empowerment?
We cannot restrict any persons’ right of choice and the right to mobility. But the Govt took a decision based on certain social implications, particularly considering mothers having children younger than five years of age. The sole aim is to protect the children and safeguard the family unit. If it fails, the entire social structure fails. Yet, the Govt has given a directive to monitor this process for six months and then evaluate and analyse pros and cons. It will happen through the SLBFE in a few months. It will include the effect on people and on the officials concerned as well. We will have to wait and see the review report and then decide. I have already instructed the SLBFE to study the process and conduct a proper research. Solid research based data will lead to a more accurate decision.
And the other factor is that we have taken a decision to request from fathers having children younger than five years of age and planning to migrate for work, a statement ascertaining the safety and the welfare of his children. He should indicate in writing about who will take care of the children, how will their welfare measures get fulfilled etc. Though this will not be as strict as the family background report, we plan to implement it in the near future.
Lost a few job markets but new venues to open up
In the recent budgets – 2016 and 2017, gave decisions to standardize the wages for expats. Accordingly, it stipulated a minimum salary in foreign employment. Has this been implemented? And if so, how will it be implemented?
In 2016, the Govt took a decision to make the minimum wage limit for the migrant workers to be 300 US dollars. That we implemented. In the 2017 budget, the Govt had decided to increase it to 350 USD. With this increase, Sri Lanka faced several consequences. We lost a few markets. The decrease is not only in the ME countries, but in other labour receiving countries like Malaysia where there was a demand for skilled workers. In countries like Malaysia, even their own citizens earn on an average which is less than 350 USD. Mega scale companies of those countries which are directly dealing with the SL authorities in recruiting Sri Lankans have informed us about their concern and that they will lower the number of recruitments. Labour migration is very competitive and there are several other labour demand countries that are willing to send their citizens as workers to a much lesser salary. Yet, we as a country, also need to be concerned about the standards on which we send our citizens as migrant workers.
Skilled professionals had been migrating for better employment over the past. But since recent times, the Govt, through the SLBFE, started to promote foreign employment for certain professions such as nursing. What is the plan?
Professionals will gain better job opportunities in a more regularized manner. This is not only nursing. There are demands for trained professionals in many fields. Overall we are giving a lot of effort to promote the skilled category. The conditions are more favourable for Sri Lankans who wish to migrate for employment. Through better trainings we are also trying to elevate the professional levels of those who migrate for lower skilled categories.
We need to diversify the job markets rather than concentrating on the Middle East. We have already received positive responses from countries like Germany and Japan. There is a huge demand for caregivers. German companies providing caregiver services have extended their willingness to sign agreements with the SLBFE to recruit suitable people as caregivers. We are in discussion with several such companies in Japan as well. These countries are ready to provide training as well for suitable candidates. If these plans turn positive, we do not have to depend on the ME job market.
In addition, an Australian private institute signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the SLBFE to train Sri Lankans in nursing and caregiver professions. The agency has a much wider network attached to job markets. Their focus is not only in Australia but the network is linked to countries like South Africa and several ME countries. The negotiations with the private companies were conducted through the SLBFE and the Australian High Commission in Colombo. This institute is already established in India and looking to expand the service to Sri Lanka. These positive responses have been very supportive in our efforts to promote jobs in the skilled category.
Factories in foreign countries, particularly in the garment sector are recruiting Sri Lankan workers directly. There is a significant demand as SL has experienced skilled labour in the apparel sector. Does the Govt have a special authority or a system to oversee this new booming labour migration trend?
There is no specific authority. Yet whoever migrates to any foreign country for employment, and whatever the sector is, must register with the SLBFE. Even the agencies related to this recruitment must be registered with the authority just like any other recruitment agency does. They cannot work independently. They must follow the established rules and regulations.
There were reports that stated job opportunities for Sri Lankans in Israel had been affected due to illegal overstay. What is the situation now?
The problem still exists. Sri Lankans who migrate for agriculture seasons in Israel have not adhered to agreements. Normally when the employer wants the same employee for work again, he/she should request for them. So there is always a chance for efficient workers to continually get the job opportunity. But due to what many Sri Lankans have done they have created a lot of problems and this would cut down the job opportunities. If this condition continues, we will lose this job market. Therefore we will take stern action against this visa overstay.
Professionals with experience migrate for better job opportunities and they claim that they do not get registered with the SLBFE. Almost all are recruited by the employer directly. How is this situation covered by the ministry and the SLBFE?
Most of persons in this category are now registering with the SLBFE. A few years ago the numbers were very low. But we see that more skilled professionals do register with the authorities.
The common norm among people who migrate to work, irrelevant of their work category, state that they find no importance in registering with the SLBFE or getting the medical insurance, as they do not feel that this system properly protects them during their tenure. What are your comments on this?
It is not a correct decision. If they migrate with proper registration, we know where they are. If there is any trouble we can contact them easily. When a problem occurs they need the Government protection. I did come across certain cases where professionals had issues with their employer and they had no registration back in Sri Lanka. When problems arise the Sri Lankan diplomatic mission in that country is informed. Whether these Sri Lankans are registered or not, our embassies have the capacity to protect them being citizens of this country. The diplomatic missions will do that since it is their obligation and responsibility. These professionals, had they been registered with the SLBFE, we are also in a strong position to support them at difficult times, be they financial or legal. The Sri Lankan Government can intervene without any obstacle.
When a person registers before migrating, every document related will be registered with the SLBFE, even the employment contract is registered. Therefore if there are any violations with conditions stipulated in the contract or any other issue negatively affecting the worker, the Sri Lankan authorities are at a stronger position to defend the worker. As long as the working conditions are positive the employee will not feel the importance of this. But when trouble arrives it does help to protect their rights.
Drafting a sub policy on reintegration of the returnees
What is the progress in the reintegration programme for those who return from foreign jobs, especially from unskilled and semi-skilled categories?
We are in the process of drafting a sub policy on reintegration of the returnees back in to their communities. We have a policy on labour migration but as the number of people returning from foreign employment is increasing, there should be a Govt policy to address their issues as well. If we manage to finalize it soon, Sri Lanka will be the first country in South Asia to have a Sub Policy on Reintegration of Returnees. That policy will include all segments considering financial advice, healthcare and welfare of the families of these returnees. To those who wish to migrate again for foreign employment, there will be skill upgrading programmes empowering them to go for a better choice of work.
The Sri Lankan labour market does not provide enough manpower to ongoing development work. There is a dearth in the Sri Lankan labour market. And the number of people migrating as semi-skilled and unskilled is on the rise. How can this be addressed?
This depends on the demand and the supply. If the industries who are in need of labour are able to pay the workers a salary similar or at least close to what they are capable of earning through foreign employment, then people will get attracted to local job opportunities. It will be more beneficial for them to work within the country rather going abroad leaving behind their families. Until this demand is met, it is difficult to stop people migrating for foreign employment.
And in particular, people migrating for jobs in the skilled category earn a very high salary compared to what is offered back home. Even in the new venues that are opened for Sri Lankans in countries like Israel, the jobs in the agriculture sector, offer a very high salary. Sri Lankans who are skilled in agricultural work, can earn a decent amount within a season which is usually for 6 – 7 months. They can earn a salary more than an executive officer in the public sector. This is a major economic benefit to those people and their families.
Political authorities also question us asking what could be done. Nothing else could be done but to match this demand. We cannot stop people’s movement seeking better economic prosperity.
This article originally appeared in Daily Mirror.