Migrant workers to the fore

Saturday, 17 May 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

NEXT week begins with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau, visiting to assess the situation of Sri Lankans migrating abroad for work, and the related recruitment practices. This is the first mission to Sri Lanka by an independent expert charged by the UN Human Rights Council with monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation of migrants around the world. His report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2015. Migration plays a key role in the economic development of Sri Lanka. Foreign workers form 24% of the labour force, and remittances form 33% of the country’s foreign exchange and 8.3% of its GDP. During his eight-day mission to the country, Crépeau will meet with a range of Government officials responsible for migration and labour, international organisations, civil society, the private sector and both prospective and returned migrants, to discuss how to better protect the human rights of migrants, including in the recruitment process. He is expected to address recruitment practices of labour migrants while looking at a number of relevant topics, including the legal and institutional framework, bilateral agreements signed with migrant receiving States, pre-departure training and information provided to prospective migrants, the role and regulation of private recruitment agencies and brokers (sub-agents), recruitment fees, consular assistance provided to Sri Lankan migrants in their country of employment, and reintegration services offered to returned migrants. These are all also aspects that have been challenging the Government and the migrant workers who avail themselves to policies. While it is commendable that the Government has inked an agreement with Saudi Arabia to provide better treatment for migrant workers and the Saudi Government also put in place an amnesty allowing over 10,000 Lankan workers to return, there are still many issues to be addressed. Sri Lanka already has over two million migrant workers, mostly working in Middle Eastern countries, with 52% of them being women. These new numbers provide the strongest impetus for the Government to get its act together to protect migrant workers. This means that greater awareness and training is also necessary so that they can get better pay and work conditions. Migrant workers need support services here and in the country of employment so that when an injustice is done they have an authority to turn to. Proposed housing and entrepreneurship loan schemes, while providing an incentive for migrant workers, are also part of a highly-politicised process that leaves room for women to fall through the cracks. A special system has to be put in place so that savings and accessibility to loans and other financial schemes are given through an impartial framework. This will not only protect women but also give them a chance to invest and grow their savings while being able to return to their lives at home faster. Better negotiation of contracts, policing of agencies, tougher punishments for senders of underage workers, transparency on employment policies, adequate compensation and awareness for potential employees to make better decisions are all on the long list. Despite tragedies such as Rizana and thousands of Sri Lankans stranded in Saudi Arabia after an amnesty period lapsed, more and more people are seeking employment overseas. They are the main drivers of Sri Lanka’s economy and deserve to be treated and protected to the best of all stakeholder capacity.