Protecting migrant workers

Friday, 4 December 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Sri Lankans are sorrowfully awaiting news of a tragic second death of a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. Numerous reports have indicated the unnamed victim will be stoned to death for committing adultery. Very few details of the case and the court procedures have reached the public, making the case even more difficult to understand and putting the Government under enormous pressure to save the mother of two.   

Migration plays a key role in the economic development of Sri Lanka. Foreign workers make up 24% of the labour force, and remittances form 33% of the country’s foreign exchange and 8.3% of its GDP. 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. 

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.

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.

Another effective means of intervention and protection by origin countries is to establish consular services with labour attaches and both male and female staff to whom migrant workers may come for assistance. This is particularly important in countries where a large number of their citizens work, such as the Middle East for Sri Lanka. This is all the more important since this region is has the bulk of unskilled and female workers, which are the two most vulnerable groups. A range of countries, including Philippines, Egypt, Mexico and Tunisia, are assisting migrant workers to protect their rights through better choices and stronger legislation. Surely it is time for Sri Lanka to do the same.