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SRI LANKA: Managing Overseas Workers A Tough Balancing Act

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Mar 15 2010 (IPS) - The extent of Sri Lanka’s dependence on its one million citizens who work abroad can be gauged from officials who gleefully count the dollars that come in to sustain the country’s economy.

“Last year Sri Lankan workers remitted 3.3 billion (U.S.) dollars, up from 2.9 billion dollars in 2008 and this was despite the global financial crisis,” a palpably pleased L K Ruhunuge, additional general manager at the state- owned Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), told IPS.

“Even though the employment market in the United Arab Emirates has shrunk up (owing to the financial crisis),” he added, “we are lucky because the demand in Saudi Arabia has increased.”

Rights groups, however, are less upbeat over this development. As the government happily monitors the growing remittances from Sri Lankans working overseas, rights advocates say it continues to ignore the persistent abuses endured by its citizens abroad, especially in the Middle East.

The plight of migrant workers is a touchy issue in this South Asian island nation as workers and human rights groups complain that the government is not doing enough to protect its nationals overseas.

Remittances now account for more than 35 percent of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange needs. With an unemployment rate hovering between five percent and six percent in the last five years, the government has been compelled to encourage work migration despite the risks to which its exposes its citizens – especially the women.

Each year, more than 200,000 Sri Lankans venture overseas to work, most of them heading for the Middle East. Official statistics show that 53 percent of this number are women, the majority of them unskilled workers.

Rights advocates say female domestic workers are the most victimised among Sri Lanka’s overseas labourers, suffering abuses ranging from non- payment of wages to rape. They also say that most of such abuses occur in Middle Eastern countries, where facilities for domestic workers are also poor or practically non-existent.

Battered by accusations of neglecting the overseas workers’ rights, the government has argued that private employment agents are to blame, primarily for ‘irregular’ recruitment where workers are at the mercy of their employer due to a lack of a proper work contract.

It has also said that less than 10 percent of the Sri Lankan workforce overseas has filed complaints.

Recently, however, the government appeared to heed the activists’ complaints by saying it was considering a ban on the deployment of workers particularly to the Middle East. It also announced the start of a pilot project in Libya, with the support of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Sunil Sirisena, secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, said that the government had selected some 500 workers to work for a Brazilian company that is constructing an international airport in Tripoli.

According to Shantha Kulasekara, migration management head of the IOM in Sri Lanka, the project aims to ensure quality and prepared labour overseas. He also said that Libya was selected because it is a “non-traditional labour- receiving country”.

“We are helping the government to provide quality labour, and if Libya is satisfied there would be many more jobs,” Kulasekera said. He added that if this scheme works, women need not go abroad as domestics for jobs that fetch around 150 dollars per month because their husbands can earn more than three times that amount.

Wages for unskilled workers at the Tripoli project is 58,000 rupees (a little over 500 dollars) per month, while skilled workers could receive up to 100,000 rupees (876 dollars) with food, medical services and accommodation provided by the company.

The Brazilian firm, which the IOM itself chose for the project, has also agreed to hire a Sri Lankan cook and a Sri Lankan coordinator to liaise between the workers and employer. Earlier this month, a company representative was even in Colombo to personally supervise the selection of skilled and unskilled workers for the project.

Ministry secretary Sirisena said that if the project works, the government would consider extending it to Israel, Cyprus, Italy, and France. He admitted, “Trying to enforce it in the Middle East is difficult because salaries are not as high as these countries and facilities (there) are poor.”

The government has said that it can only do so much about the absence of safeguards in labour-receiving countries. It has also said that the SLBFE has measures in place to protect Sri Lankan workers’ rights abroad, including compulsory registration of outbound workers with the agency, as well as the stipulation of minimum wages in contracts.

Lakshan Dias, chairman of the Colombo-based South Asian Network for Refugees, IDPs (internally displaced people) and Migrants (SANRIM), acknowledged that the migration of workers has been going on for many decades and cannot be stopped.

He said, however, that it is incumbent upon the sending country to protect the rights of its workers.

Dias also said that the government should not rely on the number of complaints it receives from workers themselves to help craft its policies. A lawyer who worked for many years in a Hong Kong-based migrant support group, Dias pointed out, “The complaint process is cumbersome and complicated. I have seen many times where workers at airports have problems and they don’t complain.”

He cited instances where Sri Lanka workers, many coming from impoverished rural villages, slept inside or near toilets or kitchens or sometimes on top of a deep freezer but did not complain because these facilities were better than what they endured back home.

“Nevertheless these are not acceptable facilities,” said Dias. “Only countries like Hong Kong have decent conditions for workers where a separate room for the domestic (worker) is compulsory.”

He said, though, that countries like Jordan and Kuwait have improved significantly in terms of worker facilities and conditions. Yet while they have bilateral agreements with Sri Lanka, Dias said the “marked improvement in the conditions for workers” is “mainly because protective regulations in these countries have improved on their own”.

If the government finds it difficult to ensure that Sri Lankan workers have their rights in other countries, Dias said, it may want to try this method: Transform welfare societies set up by its overseas workers into groups with Sri Lankan government backing that can protect migrant labourers.

“The Philippines is the best example in such organisations,” he said. “Now these Sri Lankan societies are organising entertainment events and other welfare, but the government can fund them to turn them into a group that could mediate on behalf of the workers.”

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