Migrant worker remittances buoy balance
of payments but
Data problems prolongs suffering
Sri Lanka’s migrant workers play an important role in the country’s economy with their remittances providing stability to the balance of payments and providing development finance but poor data collection is hampering the creation of policies aimed at improving their welfare, a new study of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) highlights.
Last week the IPS launched the first country report on migration titled ‘International Migration Outlook—Sri Lanka: 2008’.
"The total number of migrant workers is estimated to be 1.8 million with an annual outflow of about 250,000 workers. In 2007, migrant workers amounted to about 23 percent of total employment generated and 21 percent of the labour force," Executive Directive IPS, Dr. Saman Kelegama said.
"Remittances of migrant workers are close to US$ 3 billion or seven percent of GDP or 36 percent of its export earnings and are the second largest foreign exchanger earner. It has become the leading source of foreign capital, overtaking official development assistance and foreign direct investments," he pointed out.
Despite the importance of migrant workers to Sri Lanka’s economy, many of our workers, most of whom are women, are vulnerable to abuse and Sri Lanka lacks a basic tool in ensuring worker rights are protected overseas—a comprehensive data base.
"All this is well and good," Dr. Kelegama said of the contribution to the national economy made by our migrant workers, "but, there is another side of migration that does not paint such a rosy picture," he said.
Migration, although providing a means to come out of poverty, better access to healthcare facilities and education, there are social problems that families are vulnerable to, especially where mothers leave their homes.
Harassment, exploitation, abuse of worker rights, sexual abuse, forced labour and human trafficking are some of the vices are workers are vulnerable to.
"In order to examine the ways and means of minimising the negative aspects and maximising the positive aspects of migration, we must have a clear data base on migration. After all, good policies can be made only on the basis of a solid and accurate data base," Dr. Kelegama said stressing the rationale for IPS to compile the study on migration in collaboration with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)-Sri Lanka.
Ruwan Jayathilaka, Co-author of the report and Research Officer, IPS, said Sri Lanka had data problems and does not have an integrated migration data collection system for both immigration and emigration data.
"Most of the data goes unrecorded under the present scenario," he said.
Jayathilaka also pointed out that occupational categorisation adopted by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment was not in line with the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO), which makes comparing data difficult.
He said Sri Lanka needs to adopt policies that would protect the rights of low-skilled workers, mostly women, the majority of whom are employed in the Middle East. Managing migration was also critical in minimising brain-drain and the drag on the domestic economy.
"In order to find the correct balance of skilled migration, we need to focus on education reforms, targeted training and economic development in order to gain the best results in the long term," Jayathilaka said.
He said it was important to identify the existence of the many social problems associated with migration and the families that are left behind, so that effective policies could be formulated to address such issues.
Indentifying the potential contribution of the Diaspora to the domestic post-war economy and making formal remittances channels more accessible in rural areas are other areas that need to be given attention.
All this, including the need to increase institutional capacities to counter human trafficking and promoting Sri Lanka as a safe tourist destination will require comprehensive data so that effective policies can be formulated.
Co-author Ms. Tilani Jayawardhana, Research Economist, IPS, presented some vital data from the ‘International Migration Outlook—Sri Lanka: 2008’.
In 2007, the estimated migrant workforce amounted to approximately 1.6 million with female workers numbering a shade over a million.
Close to 50 percent of total migrant workers are housemaids. More than 85 percent of out total migrant workforce are in the Middle East.
While skilled and professional categories accounted for 27 percent of total migrant workers, unskilled workers remitted more than 80 percent of their earnings back to Sri Lanka, suggesting that it was the most vulnerable, harassed and abused who buoy the country’s balance of payments and provide development finance through foreign exchange inflows.
Ms. Jayawardhana said low skilled workers were subject to high levels of abuse due to their lack of education, training and awareness of laws and working conditions in the host country.
"In 2001, about 10 percent of our female migrant workers had been victims of some form of physical, psychological or sexual abuse. In 2007, there were 8,445 complaints made, the most common being non-payment of agreed salary, physical and sexual harassment, breach of contract and the lack of communication of vital information," Ms. Jayawardhana said.
While the majority of workers are low skilled female workers who are exposed to many difficulties, Sri Lanka is also facing a brain drain of sorts.
"Sri Lanka is facing a shortage of skilled professionals and this is being felt in the healthcare and construction sectors," Ms. Jayawardhana said.
"Sri Lanka has the highest expatriation rate of doctors and the third highest expatriation rate of nurses to developed countries (of the OECD) with 4,668 doctors and 2,032 nurses," she said.
Ms. Jayawardhana pointed out that over 5,700 job vacancies remain unfilled in the BOI job bank as well.
In 2007, the government and private sectors together had 84,207 unfilled vacancies of which 16,650 of these were highly skilled positions, 26,312 skilled and 39,358 semi skilled and elementary occupations.
Data problems 2...
Sri Lanka’s poor mechanisms to collect, process and disseminate data is not limited to the migration worker sector.
The Unemployment Benefits Insurance Scheme, proposed by the government earlier this year as a short term relief package to workers who had lost their jobs because of the global financial crisis, is being delayed because something crucial is lacking—data.
The Sri Lanka office of the International Labour Organisation also attempted a rapid assessment of employment in the face of the crisis but fragmented, weak data prevented anything conclusive coming out from the study.
Earlier this year, the government adopted a National Labour Migration Policy aimed at strengthening institutional capacities and governance of the migration process, protect worker rights and link migration to the country’s development strategies.
While many initiatives have already been implemented by the government, Minister of Labour Relations and Manpower, Athauda Seneviratne, said many things ‘should’ be done to protect and safeguard the rights of our migrant workers and their families.