An official attached to the Bureau of Foreign Employment says the government is of the view that labour migration is not sustainable in the country’s long term development objectives although steps have been taken to improve conditions for Sri Lankan workers working overseas.
"The state has adopted a National Policy on Labour Migration (2008) and considers it to be a key policy document in recognition of the fact that migration has its benefits.
"But in the long term, the state acknowledges that it cannot be considered to be sustainable," Deputy General Manager, Bureau of Foreign Employment, K. O. D. D. Fernando said.
"This was because the state was committed to creating decent jobs at home through economic development and also in terms of minimising brain-drain of the country’s top professionals," he said at the launch of the UNDP Human Development Report 2009 last morning in Colombo.
Fernando said, however, the government was in the process of implementing several projects aimed at facilitating better working conditions and decent wages so that migrant Sri Lankan workers would have positive returns.
"Labour migration not only has economic benefits but it also has tangible social returns and this is why the government has mainstreamed labour migration in to the National Development Strategy.
Dr. Saman Kelegama, Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Studies, highlighted the importance of migrant labour in Sri Lanka’s economy.
He said about 250,000 migrated each year while the present migrant worker cardre amounts to approximately 1.8 million. This is 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s labour force.
Private remittances amounts to seven to eight percent of GDP and is 36 percent of Sri Lanka’s export earnings.
"We need to centre people in the debate of migration so that human development receives attention of policy makers," Dr. Kelegama said.
He pointed out that despite the benefits, labour migration also causes social disruption and workers have to undergo harassment at various stages of the migration process.
Human Development Report 2009
The UNDP Human Development Report 2009 focuses on overcoming barriers to human mobility and development.
It says migration can bring large gains for human development benefiting both host countries and the countries migrant workers originate from but barriers do exist which limit the actual benefits attained and often, poor and female migrant workers are vulnerable to abuse, poor working conditions and forced labour.
"Migrant labour does reduce poverty and increases consumption and so hunger goes down. Families of migrant workers have improved access to better healthcare and educational facilities and women migrant workers are empowered," UNDP Senior Programme Analyst Dr. Fredrick Abeyratne said.
"On the negative side we have the outflow of professionals in the healthcare and education sectors. Migrant workers also are excluded from society in host countries and have no access to services on equal terms, although some of them may get enmeshed into society later on. There are barriers to securing employment overseas as well and sometime workers are vulnerable to human traffickers," he said.
Dr. Abeyratne said the international community should cooperate in improving labour mobility and safeguarding labour rights of migrant workers.
He also said government should expand schemes related to migration for internal migration as well, especially for those engaged in seasonal employment in the fisheries and agricultural sectors.
Gerald Lodwick, Deputy Secretary General of the National Workers Congress, said that 45 percent of Sri Lanka’s migrant workers are women.
"The feature of Sri Lanka’s migrant labour force is the heavy reliance on low skilled labour where wages are low and vulnerabilities are high, over concentrated to the Middle East," he said.
"Economic difficulties could increase migration and women remain the most vulnerable," Lodwick said.
Ms. Shyama Salgado, National Programme Officer, Youth Employment and Gender Focal Point, for the International Labour Organisation said there was a multitude of obstacles low-skilled workers had to face while gender injustice was prevalent with women being the most vulnerable to risks.
"Worker rights are important when formulating policies because migrant workers are not commodities, they are human beings. There is a tendency to consider them as separated from and outside the domestic labour force and laws that protect their rights," she said.
Migrant workers are vulnerable to risks and threats at every stage of the migration process.
At home, fraudulent employment agencies charge exorbitant fees. In transition, workers are vulnerable to human trafficking and in the host country, workers are vulnerable to abuse.
Sri Lanka has ratified core ILO labour conventions and it now has a National Policy on Labour Migration as well.
However, most destination countries have not ratified ILO conventions which are internationally binding, and even if they were, monitoring is difficult.
However, the ILO has helped the government pen bilateral agreements securing the rights of Sri Lankan workers in some Middle Eastern countries.
The National Workers Congress have entered into similar bilateral agreements with labour unions in Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait, giving our workers someone to turn to in their hour of need.
Despite the burning issues that remain and need the attention of the state, the absence of data is proving to be an obstacle to the formulation and implementation of policies and other corrective measures.
Fernando said the Bureau of Foreign Employment and the Department of Emigration and Immigration maintained separate data bases which need to be linked.