SRI Lanka is attempting to decrease the number of housemaids seeking foreign employment to just 10 per cent by 2020, instead encouraging skilled labourers to take their place. This places the country’s development goals under a massive challenge and pushes policies into contention.
Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal on Wednesday commended migrant workers as “Rataviriwo” (a title coined by Foreign Employment Minister Dilan Perera) for pushing the country forward with their remittances. Last year remittances were $ 6 billion (a record 10% of GDP), up by 17% from 2011’s figure of $ 5 billion. As per the Central Bank Road Map for 2013 and Beyond, forecast for 2016 is $ 10 billion as the Government is keen to see skilled labourers sending back precious foreign exchange.
Yet, at the same time, there is a push to double per capita income to US$ 4,000 by 2016 and for the economy to reach US$ 100 billion, which would require the best that skilled professionals have to offer, especially as the world moves towards a knowledge economy. Thus, the seemingly contradictory policies need to be balanced carefully so that Sri Lanka’s development is not sidelined.
Moreover, it is still essential for the Government to concentrate on improving the environment in which migrants work. Even though it is possible to obtain better contracts and working conditions as skilled labourers, there are legal and other supportive frameworks that need to be put in place by authorities.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has consistently called for responsible action by countries of origin to reduce abusive practices and help migrant workers make better choices. Beyond educating migrant workers about unethical and exploitive practices, origin countries should enact legislation and regulations and enforce them to prevent such abuses from taking place and sanction those who have engaged in them.
The ILO insists that where the rights of migrant workers have been violated, all persons involved in the chain of their recruitment and employment should be legally accountable, to prevent workers from being left without any remedy. When such persons cross national borders themselves in committing violations against migrant workers, origin countries must cooperate with transit and destination countries to put a stop to their conduct.
Thus, for example, a migrant worker may be cheated by a local recruiter who represents another recruiter higher on the chain. All those working together in the chain should be held accountable, whether they operate within national borders or across them.
Bilateral agreements with destination countries spelling out how responsibilities are to be shared can be a significant means of providing minimum standards and rights for a country’s citizens. Origin countries can negotiate for greater rights, particularly for less-skilled workers, which conform to international standards, with compliance guaranteed by the agreements.
Exploitation can also be reduced by providing access to regular migration and the formal labour market. Agreements can contain provisions on such things as how origin and destination countries will cooperatively manage pre-departure and return processes, transfer social security earnings or allow portability of pensions. They can also contain dispute settlement procedures and remedies for violation of rights.
These agreements are most effective when they contain specific mechanisms and procedures for solving problems and grievances, such as monitoring missions or joint committees with representatives from the countries involved.
As much as the Government encourages skilled migrant workers, there must also be motivation for foreign and local professionals to return to Sri Lanka. Such measures are not largely known and as such do not provide enough incentive.
Last year 158 people lost their lives while working abroad, highlighting the need for better short-term policies. After all, 2020 is still seven years away.