Sending qualified nurses to the US is among the steps Sri Lanka is taking to ensure its mirgant labour force is made up of more skilled workers. Image courtesy

Skilled Vs. Unskilled Workers And Sri Lanka’s Migrant Labour Problem

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The Government recently passed a regulation further tightening the current selection criteria imposed on women seeking foreign employment. According to the Government, the motive here is to discourage women from seeking foreign employment as domestic workers or caregivers. Alternatively, the Government is promoting more professionals to seek foreign employment through a Government controlled system. Even with these restrictions, the Sri Lankan labour migration sector is still the number one industry bringing in the highest amount of foreign revenue to the country.

This transfer of focus from semi-skilled labour to skilled is now reaching out to more professional fields, and nursing has become prominent, with its high demand in the world job market. The first batch of nurses, selected by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), is currently undergoing training to be qualified for work in the US health sector. Earlier this year, the SLBFE reached an agreement with the United States to send nurses for employment in private and Government hospitals.

The training is more on administration and patient management, as there are more responsibilities for a nurse in the US than locally, explains Miyuri Suraweera, the current trainer of the nurses. Suraweera has 38 years of experience as a nurse and a health administrator herself.

“Nurses need to be able to act independently, be it emergency treatment, intensive care or such. Therefore, Sri Lankan nurses need to widen their scope in order to serve in US hospitals,” she explained, adding that the US Government has set specific standards for registered nurses, including better working environments and a minimum salary.

Furthermore, as Suraweera explained, in order to be recruited as a nurse in the US, one must pass examinations held by the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS). Along with the CGFNS qualification, the applicants must pass the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) with high marks. “Without both qualifications, the CGFNS does not recommend to register as a foreign nurse in US,” she elaborated.

According to the Bureau of Foreign Employment, the first batch of 38 trained nurses, with a minimum of three years’ experience in nursing, has been selected following strict criteria.

Construction Industry

The Government is also aiming to lower the percentage of unskilled labour migrants. In 2015, a total of 65,000 men and women migrated to Qatar for employment, out of which 20,504 men were under the unskilled category, according to statistics from the SLBFE.

Parallel to these attempts, the SLBFE has installed new criteria to categorise low skilled professions according to the national standards. This targets the persons migrating to Middle Eastern countries seeking jobs in the booming construction industry.

According to SLBFE Director of Training and Research, Mangala Randeniya, National Vocational training Qualifications (NVQ) will be mandatory for masons and carpenters, who are mostly recruited to fill vacancies in the construction industry in the Middle East, particularly in Qatar. “Our target group is experienced workers in the construction industry and those who wish to migrate again for work,” said Randeniya.

“The Bureau will conduct exams for these men, in collaboration with the National Vocational Training Institute. They need to pass these exams to be qualified for the foreign job opportunity. The process will commence soon,” he added.

Over the years, foreign employment has generated substantial inflow of remittances, relieved local unemployment pressures, and provided employment opportunities, especially for women. Housemaids, labourers, and drivers form a major part of the Sri Lankan migrant labour force. Almost all were sent to vacancies in Middle Eastern countries with the remuneration packages offered attracting the low-income, less-qualified community of the country, mostly women. Yet, based on reports of abuse, torture, and deaths over the years, Sri Lanka faced a question as to whether it should continue sending its workers abroad, particularly women, as housemaids or caregivers.

Workers’ Rights

It is no secret that Sri Lankan foreign domestic workers have repeatedly faced abuse, torture, and even death, at the hands of employers.

Appreciating the Government’s plans to send more skilled professionals abroad, human rights lawyer and expert on labour migration, Lakshan Dias, pointed out that protection of migrant workers’ rights is vital ‒ but he also explained that professional skills alone cannot guarantee that these rights are upheld. “More focus on sending skilled professionals or accrediting a skilled category is a positive sign, but it does not necessarily protect the workers’ rights. It is very disheartening that the Government has not given attention to this fact,” Dias said.

The migrant worker is already converted to a commodity, considering the ground realities, said Dias. “By making the worker a professional, the Government is only adding value to a ‘product’,” he explained.

He stressed that Sri Lanka, being a key labour-sending country, must negotiate with labour-receiving countries to reach bilateral or multilateral agreements to ensure rights of the workers while working and living on foreign soil.

“Labour migration is not a sustainable solution for issues we are currently facing such as unemployment and poverty. The Government needs to focus on addressing these national issues if we are spearheading towards sustainable economic development,” he added.

Currently, other attractive professions are not targeted by the Government that has a huge market globally. According to Chairperson of the SLBFE, Raj Obeysekere, the dearth of the current labour force in the country is a serious concern for the Government.

“In the near future, when the mega development projects are launched, there will be a major requirement for professionals and workers belonging to several fields. It will include skilled professionals as well as workers in the semi-skilled and unskilled categories. This requirement needs to be addressed too,” he explained.

But at the end of the day, labour migration has been – and remains – a primary solution for many low- and middle-income citizens who seek more fulfilling livelihood opportunities. If Sri Lanka wants its workers to use their skills at home, it’s high time the Government took stronger measures to address poverty alleviation, and helped create a more promising job market on the island.

(Originally published in the Roar, Sri Lanka.)

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