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Migrant workers


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International Migrants Day highlights the need for Sri Lanka to establish a comprehensive policy and effective institutional setup governing migrant workers of varying skill levels to effectively develop the Sri Lankan economy. 

It is important to understand how inbound labour migration will impact not only Sri Lanka’s own labour market and decent work opportunities for Sri Lankan workers but also the social landscape of the country.

It is therefore equally important to engage with employer organisations as well as trade unions in identifying needs and priorities in different sectors and coming to a consensus on how the process will be managed.

The Immigration and Emigration Act and other acts related to labour such as the Industrial Disputes Act, EPF Act, ETF Act, SLBFE Act, Board of Investment Act, National Human Resource and Employment Policy, National Policy on Labour Migration, Migrant Health Policy, etc. are a few related legal frameworks and policies that impact inbound migration. However, there is no holistic policy or legal framework specifically for inbound migration for employment. 

A quick scan of these policies shows that there is an urgent need for an overarching policy to guide the inbound migration of workers to the country. The policy needs to be accompanied by an efficient and transparent mechanism which steers the entire process of inbound labour migration. If serious attention is not given to this pertinent policy gap there could be several uncoordinated and sporadic responses that can create negative impacts on the socioeconomic environment of Sri Lanka.

No centralised agency is coordinating these activities. A centralised body with authority needs to be established for managing the inbound migration of foreign workers or to take the lead in the process and others acting as specific support agencies. At the same time, industries and the private sector need to engage through employer organisations and collectives to identify the roles and responsibilities of such collectives in the overall process. 

There needs to be reciprocal engagement at an institutional level between employer organisations in Sri Lanka and countries of origin to ensure an ethical recruitment process is followed and appropriate return programs are designed, similar to the Happy Return Programme of South Korea, which is seen as a good practice from which Sri Lankans are already benefitting.

Currently, there are no projections on the labour requirements of different sectors, particularly the requirement of different types of skills and competencies within the country. This has resulted in difficulty in projections of foreign labour requirements. The Department of Manpower and Employment studies labour market behaviour but does not provide labour market projections. It is of utmost importance to reduce the skill gaps, review internal employment number deficits, identify a suitable recruitment mechanism, be aware of the demographic challenges that the country faces and reduce the gender gap.

These efforts need to be supported by work permits, quality standardisation for qualifications and social security and other welfare networks for migrant workers. There are also long-term policy goals such as increasing productivity, moving up the labour value chain and understanding the holistic impact of these decisions on the economy. Since there is already some level of employment migration taking place, it is essential to foster open and progressive policy reforms for the benefit of all Sri Lankans. 


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