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SRI LANKA: Unions Strike Landmark Deal to Protect Migrant Workers

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, May 8 2009 (IPS) - Trade unions from Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait came together with their Sri Lankan counterparts here to strike an unprecedented agreement on the welfare of migrant workers.

The Colombo agreement is seen as breaking the tight grip on migrant workers of recruitment agencies here and in recruiting countries. It grants all internationally recognised labour rights to Sri Lankan workers, with unions in receiving countries ensuring implementation.

Union officials said this landmark deal will be followed by similar agreements with unions in Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, which have large populations of workers in the Middle East.

The agreements are very beneficial and will ensure protection of migrant workers at a time when the global financial crisis is affecting demand, Abdul Rahman Alganim, vice president and head of the migrant workers office at the Kuwait Trade Union Federation, told IPS.

Of the 1.6 million Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, there are over 300,000 workers in Kuwait, over 75,000 in Jordan, and 45,000 in Bahrain.

The new agreement is based on a model developed under the aegis of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and its Bureau for Workers’ Activities. It is also the first of its kind covering Asian migrant workers in Arab states. The Colombo office of the ILO was instrumental in initiating the agreement.

The unions will now step in and help workers having problems in the workplace in terms of disputes over wages, harassment or any other issue.

“The difference in what we do and what the job agents do is that we will not charge any fees for services provided to migrant workers. It is a free service,” said Alghanim, soon after the agreement was signed in Colombo.

Sri Lankan migrant workers, particularly domestics who account for more than 60 percent of the total, contribute millions of dollars to the country’s sparse foreign exchange reserves through remittances every month. But while they are often hailed by ministers and other officials as saviours of the economy, beyond that they get very little attention.

They face all forms of harassment in the countries where they work. Now, they also face the threat of job losses as a result of the financial crisis.

David Soysa, director of the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) in Colombo and a veteran in the battle for worker rights in labour-receiving countries, says workers don’t enjoy any rights in the countries they work in and are subject to all forms of harassment and wage issues.

A key clause in the agreements is that, in line with ILO conventions, labourers will not be treated as a ‘commodity.’ Other sections in the agreement deal with equality for migrant workers, access to healthcare and protection from dangerous work.

Sunil Sirisena, secretary of Sri Lanka’s ministry of foreign employment promotion and welfare, told IPS the agreements will help tackle various issues and problems faced by migrant workers. “There were many issues but few laws,” he stressed.

Bilal Malkawi, president of the General Union of Air Transport and Tourism in Jordan, said his union separately reached an agreement with a semi-state owned Sri Lankan company – JobsNet – to enter the recruitment business, as a further step to break the stranglehold on migrant workers by recruitment agencies.

“We hope to set up a company to deal with migrant issues that would also provide a non-profit service to provide jobs where we will ensure the workers are treated with dignity,” Malkawi added.

He told IPS that the union has been lobbying for migrant worker rights for the past three years and that now laws in Jordan have been changed to respect the rights of workers.

“But even though there are laws, implementation is slow,” he said, adding that the move to set up a company was for the purpose of overcoming these delays and ensuring workers got a decent wage and workplace and respect for their rights.

He said the board of directors of the new company will be volunteers while staff will receive a wage. It would have on board the services of four Jordanian NGOs working solely on women’s issues, and together with Sinhala and Tamil-language staff, they will visit the homes of employers to ensure domestics are adequately protected and comfortable. Sinhala and Tamil are the main languages in Sri Lanka.

The union-controlled company will also set up a training centre cum residence facility where Sri Lankan workers will be brought from Amman airport and given a quick three-day training course, to acclimatise them with the country and culture.

“We hope this will set an example for other recruitment agents to provide a first class service and ensure the workers are properly looked after,” he said.

Zain Milhan, President of the Sri Lanka Manpower Welfare Association (SLMWA) in Kuwait, pleads for a balanced approach by the media on this issue.

“One of the biggest problems is that the worker is ill-prepared, doesn’t have a clue about household equipment or is coerced by fellow workers to jump ship [leave the home of the employer] and seek free-lance work outside. It is a selection problem, and also ill-preparedness on the part of the housemaid,” he told IPS on the sidelines of an April 2008 meeting in Kuwait between recruitment agents from Sri Lanka and Kuwait.

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