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Tuesday, April 23, 2019
Feb 26 2017 - Last Sunday’s front page lead story in this newspaper on the risk to foreign employment due to the 2017 Budget by raising the minimum wage for skilled labour seems to have caught the eye of Parliament. The Minister in charge of Foreign Employment confirmed the fact that her ministry was rather perturbed that it had not been consulted, and wanted the proposal reversed.
Foreign remittances of workers and others overseas have become the single largest foreign exchange earner and are now the mainstay of successive Budgets of successive Governments which have been unable to generate sufficient finances on their own but go on a spending spree nevertheless.
US dollars 7.2 billion (Rs. 1.1 trillion) is what foreign remittances bought in to this country in 2016. The fact that Sri Lanka is facing a debt crisis of huge proportions is an open secret. Desperate for foreign investment that has otherwise dried up, and the rupee on a slippery slope against the US dollar, the Government’s predicament is somewhat understandable.
In this desperation, however, to try and tap even more from the reservoir of foreign remittances by upping the minimum wage of migratory workers — they seem to almost to count the chicks before they are hatched — is to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. What the Government must endeavour to do instead is to lobby more aggressively in the manner of ‘collective bargaining’ with other countries providing expat labour, especially in West Asia so that adventurist exercises like what the Government seeks to do don’t come a cropper in the long run by other countries snapping up the jobs Sri Lankans can have. The end aim should be getting a better deal for all concerned.
The Government must play the role of a trade union demanding better wages and working conditions from the employer, mindful also that West Asian and Gulf countries are facing their own economic slumps with oil prices dropping in recent times and wars in the region.
Only last month did the Abu Dhabi Dialogue – an initiative by the United Arab Emirates having stakeholders highlight the potential of contractual labour mobility to benefit workers in West Asia and the host country, meet in Sri Lanka. Known as the ‘Colombo Process’, the exercise is a tribute to employer-employee relations and an exemplary milestone in migratory contractual labour mobility.
New laws and regulations and transparent recruitment mechanisms were highlighted along with achieving the migration-related target of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals as part of its work plans. Bangladesh has urged that the deliberations of the ‘Colombo Process’ be conveyed to the Global Compact on Safe and Orderly Migration Policy in New York.
It need not be all horror stories coming from West Asia and the Gulf. There may be commendable moves initiated to dissuade Sri Lankan women from going as housemaids to some of the countries, and promoting skilled workers to go for foreign employment rather than as mere labourers. But without providing the training facilities for those skilled labourers who are in short supply, the Government is putting the cart before the horse in fixing minimum wages. That will only prevent more Sri Lankans from finding jobs abroad triggering a drop, not an increase, in revenue to the state purse.
With Sri Lanka now in the chair of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue and the ‘Colombo Process’, one would hope for a more enlightened approach on a win-win basis for Sri Lanka’s golden goose — the long suffering migrant workers without whose remittances this country would be in even deeper economic troubles.
Talks behind closed doors
As if synchronised, visits this week by US Congressmen, a senior Indian diplomat and members of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, are no better a pointer to the geopolitical interest in Sri Lanka.
The Government has not thought it necessary to let the people know what these visits were all about. Keeping them below the radar, the Government seems to believe that what the people do not know, is not happening. Or that the plebs need not know what their leaders do. It was only the President’s Media Unit that at least issued a bare-bones release on some of the visits. The result; widespread speculation, intensifying suspicion, but the Government seems to care little.
What the discerning public receive are the official release from the Indian side and reports published in the Indian media (often reproduced locally) on the Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit. The Chinese would rather stay below the radar saying the visit was to discuss the entire gamut of China’s recent investments in Sri Lanka, but the corridors of power are buzzing with the talk that it was another reading of the ‘Riot Act’ to Sri Lankan leaders to hurry up and sign the controversial agreement for the Hambantota Port Development Project, now stalled by public protests and a pending court case.
Even if the Sri Lankan Government maintains a deafening silence, the unusually loquacious Chinese ambassador has recently spoken in public on the status of these negotiations, suggesting what is best for Sri Lanka, when a case is being adjudicated before the country’s Supreme Court. Acting in the manner of a Viceroy, the envoy who is invited to brief Cabinet sub-committees nowadays, is certainly not going to be summoned by the Foreign Ministry to be cautioned about diplomatic conduct. On the other hand, with the new US Administration changing course on two issues that country championed for decades – free trade and free speech, it may be China wanting the mantle – at least abroad.
Recent reports indicate that several countries have begun reviewing rapidly expanding Chinese investments around the world on the basis of “national interest”. Some projects have been cancelled in Australia and Germany on these grounds. Beijing is also imposing a certain amount of controls on the outflow of its capital.
The Hambantota port and Colombo’s ‘Financial District’, which is the port city, may fall into the category of strategic interests to China rather than of commercial value, but what Sri Lanka must guard against is that in its negotiations, secret as they are, don’t run counter to our own long-term national interests; and that they are not merely seen from the prism of overcoming an immediate debt problem that the previous Sri Lankan Government foisted on the people.
From all accounts, the Indian Foreign Secretary has given a telling message that the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord is outdated in some aspects and the demand for the North-East merger is now passé. Whether the contentious issue of poaching in Sri Lankan waters by Indian fishermen, causing irreparable harm to the Sri Lankan economy was ever discussed is anybody’s guess. With a pro-active disclosure policy under the new Right to Information Law in operation on the one hand, the acute deficiency in letting the citizens know the outcome of all these discussions with these key overseas players on the other, is not just unfortunate, it is not in the public interest.
This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka
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