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Protecting migrant workers


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Exploitation comes in many forms. During the first seven months of 2018 the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) filed 163 cases against foreign employment agencies and persons who tried to send workers overseas illegally and defrauded them of millions of rupees.  

Unskilled workers often use private recruitment agents who compete intensely for the sale of their labour to employers. Workers, mostly women, desperate for money can be easily exploited by these agents, especially since many of them are less educated and have fewer employment options.  

Moreover, temporary migrant workers are vulnerable to certain abuses in the recruitment process. Such abuses include deliberate misinformation about the working and living conditions in the country of employment and the charging of excessive fees. The requirement in some countries that employers sponsor migrant workers can also result in the late payment of wages, the substitution of the original employment contract with one containing fewer safeguards for the migrant worker, restrictions on freedom of movement, and, in some cases, physical or sexual intimidation.

This year the highest number of court cases was against an employment agency that defrauded people claiming to get them jobs in Seychelles. According to reports, 135 cases have been filed at the Mahara Magistrate court against this agency.

Nineteen cases have been filed against an institution which defrauded 19 people of more than Rs. 50 million, exceeding the Government approved charges to provide jobs in Israel. Another case has been filed against a woman, who managed an illegal employment agency in Hambantota, for defrauding 17 people of more than Rs. 120 million promising fisheries jobs in Somalia.

The number of complaints received by the Bureau of Foreign Employment regarding the illegal foreign employment agencies and individuals has risen and authorities have requested people to inform the bureau if they are aware of such illegal institutions. 

In 2015, 93 cases were filed, which increased to 179 cases in 2016. In 2017 the number rose to 248, and this number could well be exceeded this year. Yet it is also difficult to monitor and prevent unscrupulous agents from preying on aspiring migrant workers. 

One place to start would be in creating greater awareness of how to select a properly registered recruitment agency. A checking process, preferably with online access and a system where the Foreign Employment Bureau regularly monitors and updates accreditation for agencies, would be preferable so that it would be harder to mislead potential workers. Given that remittances are the highest foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka, annually accounting for about $ 6 billion, it is imperative that this sector be given legal safeguards. 

Sri Lanka still has a significant number of women who seek work overseas, pushed by a complex set of socioeconomic reasons. Often these are less educated women in rural areas and it is difficult for them to obtain redress from the court system. Given Sri Lanka’s sluggish judicial system, accountability can often take years and migrant workers are often not given an alternative to recoup their money or earning opportunities. 

Efforts to regulate recruitment agencies have been rolled out from time to time but given the growing number of fraudulent acts, monitoring would have to be stepped up to protect workers.


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