Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

SRI LANKA: Right to Travel Under Threat from New Laws

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Oct 9 2009 (IPS) - New laws dealing with foreign employment agents and migrant workers, Sri Lanka’s biggest foreign revenue earner, have stirred up a hornet’s nest and concerns over a fundamental issue – the freedom to travel.

“The fundamental freedom to travel (enshrined in Sri Lanka’s Constitution) is being challenged under these new laws,” noted David Soysa, a veteran rights activist in the migrant worker industry, and director at the privately run Migrant Workers Centre.

Early this month, Parliament approved laws, in the form of amendments to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) Act of 1985, which grant ‘authorised’ civilian officers police powers to tackle bogus employment agents and illegal migrant workers.

Migrant workers, possessing false travel papers, could be arrested at the point of departure. Those who have not paid the compulsory registration cost for employment abroad are liable to be turned away if they refuse to pay the fee. The compulsory fee includes a payment for an insurance scheme generally used by the SLBFE to repatriate stranded workers overseas.

Among other changes in the law are a ban on newspaper advertisements offering overseas jobs by employment agents unless the ads are approved by the SLFBE; proper collection of levies, taxes and other payments from employment agents and migrant workers, and imposition of fines and jail terms for violation of these laws.

The SLBFE is a state organisation that is responsible for foreign employment and works under the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare.

The government says the current stock of Sri Lankan migrant workers overseas is 1.6 million (out of the country’s 20 million population), of whom over 800,000 are women. Annually, more than 200,000 people seek employment overseas. Most of the migrants are based in the Middle East, the biggest source of employment, particularly for female domestic workers, since the late 1970s.

This industry for years has been troubled by migrant workers facing serious problems at the overseas workplace, with the common issues being lack of awareness of language and culture; sexual and other forms of harassment; and dispute over an agreed wage. Employment agents have been blamed for over-charging recruits and not taking responsibility for problems arising at the other end.

Lakshan Dias, a Sri Lankan human rights lawyer who has worked for over four year in Hong Kong with migrant worker associations, said none of the demands of the workers is contained in the new laws. “It’s only about collecting taxes and levies from workers and job agents.”

He said giving police powers to SLBFE officials violates the rights of migrant workers. “They can arrest and detain people and could be subject to torture as the general case is (evident) in Sri Lanka when eliciting information,” he said, noting that the rights of workers and their freedom to travel are missing in the new laws.

Workers and organisations working on their behalf have often complained about the lack of rights for migrants, which are mainly those in the workplace. In most countries in the Middle East, domestic workers do not have any rights or are unaware of their rights, if available.

In the U.S., expatriate workers are getting much better protection. A pamphlet issued recently by the U.S. State Department says expatriate workers are entitled to comprehensive rights and that hundreds of organisations are available to assist them in filing complaints and pursuing legal claims against employers.

They have rights to be paid, the right not to be retaliated or be discriminated against, female workers’ rights and workers’ rights to a healthy and safe workplace.

A U.S. embassy official told IPS that this is also useful information for Sri Lankans travelling to the U.S. for work. Not many Sri Lankans, however, find employment in the U.S.

A senior government official, however, defends the controversial new laws, saying these are meant to protect the workers and their families.

“Job agents charge unreasonable fees, and under the new laws our officers can visit, search and arrest errant agents,” said L.K. Ruhunugge, Additional General Manager at the SLBFE. He added that the bureau ensures that agents do not charge any fees that are not authorised.

In most cases, foreign employers pay the entire fee – for visas, registration, job agents’ commission, medical checks and air tickets. However, poor migrant workers are often duped to mortgage their properties or sell off their meagre belongings to pay a fee to a local agent if they are to secure a job. In future under the new laws, any unauthorised payments would be an offence.

Human rights lawyer Dias, who has been travelling between Colombo and Hong Kong several times during his overseas stint, said he has seen many instances where migrant workers are barred at the airport from travelling because they have a problem, including non-payment of fees to the bureau. “This is illegal. The officers of the bureau stationed at the airport have no right to stop a person travelling abroad if they have proper travel documents.

“Only the police or immigration officers have this right,” he said. According to him bureau officers also target the shabbily dressed (poor workers) rather than the well-dressed, white-collar workers. “I tested this once – dressing well and shabbily – and the treatment differs.”

SLBFE’s Ruhunugge agreed that their officers find it difficult to bar workers with false or insufficient travel papers at the airport, but the new laws overcome this obstacle, he said.

In recent years, the number of female domestic workers seeking overseas jobs has declined from a high of 75 percent of the total number seeking employment abroad in 1997 to a little over 50 percent in 2008. Ruhunugge, whose department prepares the statistics, explained that this is for a combination of reasons – equally-paying jobs available in Sri Lanka in the garment industry and awareness about the rigours of working overseas and the problems faced in the workplace.

In recent years, the government has been trying to encourage more skilled and semi-unskilled migration. Domestic work is considered an unskilled profession.

Rights activists working with migrant workers say that the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency promoting human and labour rights, is planning to hold a series of discussions locally to discuss the new laws and their impact on migrant workers.

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