Labour Migration Creates Vacuum in Job Market

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While there is an exodus of youth seeking foreign jobs and going for higher education, never to look back, unable to tolerate the country’s economic problems, the Government is expediting their departure, adding fuel to the raging economic crisis.

Cabinet has decided to amend the minimum age requirement of female migrant workers to 21 years. At present, the minimum age to take up employment as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia is 25 years, and in other Middle Eastern countries it is 23 years, while for the rest of the world it is 21 years. The idea immediately suggests that the Government is attempting to address the forex issue Sri Lanka is experiencing, but changing the age restrictions has drawbacks, one of which is that young people would leave, making the Sri Lankan Government’s ‘Vistas of Prosperity’ a mere facade.

According to a Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) official, the new proposal is based on International Labour Organization recommendations and was developed in collaboration with numerous employment organisations, the Ministry of Labour, and the SLBFE. He said this is mostly for domestic workers in the Middle East and not for others. After examining the suggestions of the Cabinet-appointed Sub-Committee, Cabinet approval was granted to amend the age restriction and has recommended that the minimum age of Sri Lankan female migrant domestic workers is set at 21 years.

Good intentions

The Government’s intentions are good. Sri Lanka has been sending underage persons to the Middle East and faces numerous troubles in getting them back when they were abused and exploited. Today, the idea to send mature women as housemaids is welcomed, but the concerns are that those over 18 leaving the country sets back the country’s progress. The new move will drive away manpower from the country.

The Government has also given the nod to public servants to take five years leave and go overseas if they want to. They are also given holidays to do home gardening.

The only way to develop a country’s economy is through the skills and training of its young people, who are a Nation’s driving force. Countries like Dubai, Saudi Arabia, or any other Middle Eastern nation have used the youth’s skills to bring their nation up to speed with the West. Despite their lower remuneration compared to Caucasian workers in the Middle East, Sri Lankan youngsters in South Asia have contributed significantly to other nations.

There appears to be little progress in getting younger individuals into Sri Lanka’s Parliament and it is still a farce. The present crisis has opened many eyes to allow the youth to run the economy, but this sudden amendment has left the hopeless youth with hopefuls to leave the country soon.

Migration has increased 

More young people are already fleeing the nation, according to Ashila Dandeniya, a woman activist and Founder of Stand Up Movement to represent garment workers in Katunayake, and this new policy has given them hope because their country of birth does not guarantee that. Imagine, she argues, that the daily wage earners depart the nation at a time when the factories in the Free Trade Zone are short of workers. She emphasised that numerous FTZ factories have already made official announcements of closing their doors, sending their employees wander the streets in search of odd jobs. They are presently planning to leave the nation, and the majority of those waiting in line for passports and other documents are these unfortunate people. Although they wish to go when their labour is required in Sri Lanka, they are not concerned about their safety.

She makes the argument that it is challenging for them to live in another country if they are miserable in their own. She feels that these employees would face exploitation when they leave in distress. “They can’t ask for more because those people already know more about Sri Lanka’s profile and positiaon than we do.”

“Daily wage and contract workers are emigrating. It is the age for youth to work and pay for their studies. The only remaining choice is to look for work abroad now.” She argued that people should be promoted to work in companies and factories rather than being housemaids overseas.

Additionally, she mentions that the International Monetary Fund wants foreign exchange for Sri Lanka, which could be the key in bringing the amendments. “The daily wage workers are not compensated either,” she emphasised, and they are simply instructed to stop working without receiving any compensation. “Indirectly, they are pushed to work overseas for forex and the country has no plan to sustain its economy using their skills for Sri Lanka’s progress.”

Dandeniya also pointed out that female employees in the FTZ are “forced” to move into the boarding room of their lover or vice versa. Due to the high cost of living in boarding houses and their inability to pay their rent, “I observe many FTZ workers now living together in relationships. It’s a rising problem, and unlike before, many people are now residing in such a way around the FTZ.”

“This has resulted in unplanned pregnancies, and so many have come to me for medication, and right now I am busy assisting some of the girls in their early twenties who are pregnant and have been abandoned by their partners. Their families don’t know what is going on here in Katunayake. This is the case in Sri Lanka. In their own country, there is no safety, protection or job security,” she said. Single mothers will boom in the country and that’s going to derail the country’s economy too.

“When the industries are shutting down, surely the age of 21 would serve the purpose to send them off to other countries,” she added.

No proper training

The Government is concerned about forex and wishes to cut the age and transfer them out of the nation without a programme to train and employ them in Sri Lanka. This is a form of escapism from duties to the country’s youth to meet the country’s revenue.

Dandeniya also recalled the plight during the Covid-19 surge, where both migrant workers and FTZ workers were unattended by the authorities.

“It’s a terrible shock to Sri Lanka’s labour market from the perspective of Human Resource Management,” said an official from the plantation sector, Dhammika Kobbekaduwa. The first shock is to the garment industry, as girls after school join garment factories to earn money to self-sustain, attend college, and collect cash for their marriage. They don’t have to do it anymore. They will board a plane soon. When the garment industry has labour shortages, they are dependent on the captive labour force in the plantation sector.

Simply put, the regional plantation companies are sitting on a volcano. When the whole world is doing it differently, we are overdependent on policymakers thinking that they will give us a solution on wages of daily paid workers who are the real earners for the country. 

Kept secret from TUs

According to Joint Secretary, Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union, Anton Marcus, this idea has been kept a secret from reputable trade organisations that defend the rights of migrant workers. He told Ceylon Today that the Amendment to the Constitution is key to resolving the issues of the public. The amendments are submitted on the premise that constitutions are made by the people, for the people, to set out the fundamental principles by which the State is governed. Thus, this Amendment rejects the previous practice of socially isolated institutions, groups, and individuals drafting constitutions and constitutional amendments. It thus requires the Government to first make it public, providing Media and social space for dialogue during a minimum period of four weeks, before it is approved by the Cabinet for adopting in Parliament.

Marcus added that we are exporting talent rather than utilising them, and they have yet to see the proposal to comment further. However, he said these plans to allow young people to leave the country in their prime years for a short-term gain rather than a long-term gain are an ad hoc decision. If this is how the Government intends to generate revenue, it will be ruinous. He said this is not the way to confront the country’s issues.

He also believes that the IMF should recognise that the country is in a unique crisis and should refrain from funding Sri Lanka under the traditional recommendations. “Treat it as a peculiar case,” he told IMF officials, and he also urged the IMF and the Government to first publicise the IMF proposal before accepting the loan.

“No one knows about 21A of the Constitution, and no one knows about any agreements with foreign countries.”

In 1978, then-President J.R. Jayewardene launched the Executive Presidency, claiming that it would bring political stability, investment, technology, and foreign exchange, and “This is not the case anymore,” Marcus continued.

For the umpteenth time, trade unions have expressed issues with the administration, and Marcus indicated that the Government has heeded their call for a transparent interim budget. According to the Prime Minister, an interim budget will be announced soon.

He also noted how, in 2016, a Single Labour Law was proposed and rejected by the trade unions. “However, we’ve heard that it’s on the table to be introduced.” He said the Single Labour Law will require private enterprises to work 12 hours a day without overtime and to take three days off without compensation. “It was a heinous decision that we rejected, but now we hear that the new Labour Ministry Secretary is attempting to implement it.” He also said the Labour Ministry is attempting to reinstate mandatory disciplinary procedures in which the private sector would be permitted to conduct domestic investigations. “All of the Ministry of Labour’s laws are designed to collaborate with employers rather than employees.” If this is passed, no domestic probes will be able to be challenged before the Labour Tribunal.”

Worker shortage

Regarding the age limit of 21 for migrant workers, he claimed that this would result in a severe worker shortage in the country, forcing foreigners to be called in to perform domestic work in Sri Lanka. “We already see a developing market for foreign workers in Sri Lanka, mostly from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. These workers put in long hours for cheap labour because they are residing in the factory premises.”

The former Commissioner General is now the Ministry Secretary, and he is aiming to reinstate the Single Labour Law and the labour law revisions that the trade unions rejected.

When there is a labour crisis, the plantation industry, which is already facing a labour deficit, would undoubtedly bring in cheap labour from South Asian countries and retrench local workers by forcing them to work in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Unscrupulous enterprises, factories, and government labour reforms are hurting Sri Lanka’s whole labour market, which could lead to a massive migration of young people to other countries and maintain the country in the low-middle income bracket. Sri Lankans, who are regarded as the most brilliant people in South Asia in terms of literacy rate, have been overtaken by Bangladesh and the Maldives.

Looking at the grievances expressed to Ceylon Today, we would be burdened by single mothers and couples living together violating Sri Lanka’s cultural values, prostitution, ruining the domestic labour market, while migrant Sri Lankan workers, come what may, would be contributing to other governments and generating income for other countries, sending us a pittance in return, possibly through the undiyal system.

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan