By Jemuel Chandrakumaran
Searching for green pastures while living in the Pearl of the Indian Ocean? Well, at least 24% of our labour force does. The export of labour contributes nearly 5-8% of the GDP, while their relative worth here, in the homeland, would be immaterial. Though this dignified mean of social progression has benefited those involved in the trade, the question remains as to if the overall impact to the nation has been positive.
Today’s expat market has grown in significant proportions that it has procured its own ministerial position. From soliciting females as house maids to engineers in construction sites, Lankan labour competes against other south Asian marketplaces, whilst government incentives abet an 11% year on year growth.
Yet, what is the cost? Unskilled labour including house maids, still remains as the major commodity exported in this market. Though the overwhelming female dominance from 1996 has withered away, the job description has not. Unable to make ends meet, many husbands and wives have sacrificed themselves to fend their families from the brink of poverty, with 69% of such campaigners owing huge debts to unsavoury lenders and loan sharks. Amidst the Government’s constant efforts to minimise unsolicited brokering, studies show that nearly 21% of prospective workers are defrauded at the start.
Of those who enter the market, the nature of their job has denied the perpetuity of gains these workers hope to receive. Given the unsatisfactory working conditions in the Middle East, many workers are subjected to disease, malnutrition, domestic torture and false criminal accusations, etc. and return home worse off than they were before their departure.
Then there is the lucky bunch that thrive under these conditions and still contribute to their loved ones back home. This market yields nearly $ 6.9 billion a year, a statistic is compiled by the calculation of remittances through legal channels. Yet, a majority of such monies are changed through unqualified channels, denying foreign currency circulation in the homeland.
Now, what has it cost us? Remittances through unqualified channels, deny the circulation and introduction of foreign currency into the Sri Lankan marketplace. Hence, locals are subjected to disproportionate distribution of money, when these workers settle conversions offshore.
Moreover, with increased income, comes increased spending. With the decline of interest rates in the global markets, Sri Lanka is no different in increasing personal consumption over investment. On the downside, studies show that expat families have higher spending discrepancies against local income families with expats averaging in the 10th expenditure level. This can be seen in the unlikely rise of property prices in Colombo 3, 4 and 6 and the rising social costs in private education and fast food chains.
Many researchers label these occurrences as the modernisation of the Lankan society, but fail to identify how locals are able to afford these costs under Lankan compensation, unless sponsored by expat income.
Worst of them all, labour force participation in Sri Lanka has been at a constant stalemate of 54%. Even amidst the constant training of talent, we tend to lag behind in putting our people to work. As opposed to many western nations we have a higher literacy rate and still refuse to accept the truth of our laziness to use it.
Some even stoop down to say that we protect our social conservatism (with women staying at home), which we had no problem denying earlier to accept Western practices in the inner fringes of our cities. The simple explanation here is that, unlike before, expat families have elevated themselves and their families, where future earning is unwarranted.
Throughout this exposition, we have seen the effect this industry has had on families, the nation and its economy. At first thought, this could be the damning reality that we all fail to accept. But it is my belief, that with Government intervention in regulating and monitoring those involved as middlemen and expats, a sustainable compromise could be reached.
(The writer is a FX Trader and poker enthusiast.)