A total of 158 migrant workers have died this year while courageously working to overcome adversity and to live a better life.
The shocking statistics were revealed by Foreign Employment Minister Dilan Perera in Parliament, who attempted to explain away the large number by pointing out that 120 of these were from “natural causes”. Yet, a plethora of issues related to employment including over work, stress, inadequate access to cost effective healthcare, limited free time, and unhealthy work habits can contribute to death by what is flippantly referred to as natural causes.
Two suicides were reported and 16 deaths had occurred due to road accidents while 20 workers had died as a result of industrial hazards at their workplaces.
Perera had attempted to show the Government’s response by pointing out that efforts are being made to reduce the number of non-skilled migrants but without a proper mechanism there is still room for migrant workers to be exploited – whether they be skilled or otherwise.
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.