Shortage of SLBFE Officers in Middle East SL Missions
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
How sure are we, during a pandemic or a post-pandemic situation, whether the Sri Lankan migrant workers, especially women, will enjoy their rights and anticipate better treatment at their workplace, Sri Lankan missions, and on arrival to their country, having witnessed several ugly events that unfolded in the last one year or so, during the pandemic?
How they became problem to Nation
A colossal revenue loss for Sri Lanka is expected between 2020 and 2021 due to the return of the stranded migrant workers and that’s the moment we would realise their value, those who are among the most vulnerable in the world.
The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) has a bigger say over the migrant workers but are compelled to work closely with those who are registered under them, and the process, of repatriating migrant workers seems lengthy, slow and lethargic, given the fact that resources, and facilities are limited.
From 1977, under the open economy reforms, large-scale of migration of workers from the Asian countries including Sri Lanka travelled to the Middle Eastern (ME) region and it was a dream come true for women workers who had toiled for their families but were unable to meet ends, had the second chance to live a dignified life and also to remit salaries to their families proudly.
By 2011, overseas migrant worker remittances became the largest contributor to Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange yet, they were stigmatised because of being women with less or no education, working as housemaids, factory labourers, handling tasks such as house cleaning, cooking, washing and ironing clothes, taking care of children, senior or sick members of a family, gardening, guarding the house, driving and taking care of household pets. The ‘branding’ as less fortunate amongst the labour force, caused them to suffer dearly.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that nearly 2.2 billion workers, representing 68 per cent of the global workforce, are living in countries with recommended or required workplace closures. Also, it is migrant workers who represent 4.7% of the global labour pool comprising 164 million workers with nearly half being women.
Reports document rising levels of discrimination and xenophobia against migrants and in some cases food insecurity, layoffs, worsening working conditions including reduction or non-payment of wages, cramped or inadequate living conditions, and increased restrictions on movements or forced returns (where they may be stigmatised as carriers of the virus).
Human rights groups fear rising levels of violence, particularly on those in domestic work where women workers predominated during the Covid-19 times.
Already the ILO has declared that women migrant workers employed as front-line health and care workers are a particularly high-risk group for COVID-19. Three areas of action they have said is key during the pandemic. They are: migrant workers’ inclusion in national COVID-19 responses to ensure the realisation of equality and social justice; bilateral cooperation between countries of origin and destination; and social dialogue and full involvement of employers’ and workers’ organisations in the development of COVID-19 responses.
This is stated in the ILO Decent Work Country Programme Sri Lanka 2018-2022.
The late response in repatriating migrant workers to Sri Lanka resulted in families protesting on the street. Some said the rich and influential were flown in while stranded workers were given second class treatment. Social media was flooded with workers in the Middle East crowding around the Sri Lankan missions and yelling at those staffers. The live recording of the stranded living under trees and sheds in the park had a huge number of followers and unpleasant comments.
Minister of Labour, Nimal Siripala de Silva last month (March 2021) stated those who have registered with the SLBFE and gone abroad for employment will be quarantined at the expense of the Government. That is yet to happen.
Also, there was a lack of information and the stranded workers did not know about what was happening around them. They struggled to get to the embassies to ask for cash and dry rations and the doors were shut on them, whereas embassy staffers were able to board planes to Sri Lanka.
Joint Secretary, Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees’ Union Anton Marcus, described how his Trade Union had to fight tooth and nail to release 180 factory workers who were not paid their salaries. He said the Sri Lankan Mission in Jordan took the sides of the factory owners and did not stand by their workers. “Those embassy people took revenge on the workers who were stranded and did not support in the booking of their flights to return to Sri Lanka. There were incidents and tear gas sprayed on migrant workers in Jordan. In Kuwait, some had immense hardship getting their PCR results and missed their flights.
Marcus added, after intervening with the Foreign Ministry they were able to get them down to Sri Lanka in batches. “We intervened last December.”
He said, Minister de Silva had told Parliament that nearly 180 persons have died in the Middle East due to COVID-19.
He also alleged that air tickets prices were doubled and it was untold hardship to those who were not registered with the SLBFE to purchase those tickets. He said SLBFE should respond to those high priced air tickets to the migrant workers and not only pay attention to the SLBFE registered workers at a time like this.
“I still feel there was no priority given to migrant workers and assisted them to return. Other countries first attended to their citizens and we were unprepared for that. I see there is a gradual improvement now but yet there are over 30,000 wanting to return soon,” he added.
The ILO urges Governments to provide adequate and accessible information to their workers overseas. The effectiveness of communication should be improved regarding health and safety of the community and within the workplace, including between employers’ and workers’ organisations. This has to be prominently worked upon too.
We still see a major vacuum in coordination between Sri Lanka and their migrant workers especially employed in the Middle East and it's time to systemise and follow the international rules and regulations that are tabled by the ILO and some of the insightful suggestions by trade unions and the think tanks in Sri Lanka.
One of the ILO recommendations is to ensure migrant workers have regular status or do not fall into irregular status: Special measures to facilitate the extension of visas, amnesties, work or residence permit renewals can contribute to ensuring both access to essential services for migrant workers and continuity of their contributions to the workforce at regular status, avoiding an increase in irregularity.
The ILO also states to address the special hazards of migrant workers living in communal or worksite housing in some cases, migrant workers reside in dedicated dormitories and temporary migrant reception or training centres, immigration detention centres, makeshift camps or communal living conditions.
Migrant workers should also have access to adequate quarantine areas with sufficient health, sanitation and logistics personnel. Such packages could be worked upon only if the Government has solid bilateral ties with the Middle Eastern countries unlike before. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation to migrant workers and their families can ensure their protection, safe return and effective reintegration into labour markets, ILO said in its latest report.
Policies based upon social dialogue and full involvement of employers’ and workers’ organisations can foster the inclusion of migrant workers in national responses too.
In addition to that, workers’ organisations are also actively helping to support the promotion and protection of the rights of workers, including migrant workers, during the pandemic in affected communities. Hence the Government also should actively involve them in the post-pandemic scenario.
The way of the SLBFE
In the Sri Lankan context, the SLBFE all the time talks about SLBFE registered migrant workers only are entitled to receiving allowances, dry rations, arrival air ticket, sheltering at the quarantine centres as part of the COVID-19 guidelines. That cannot be accepted as in fact, there are over 100,000 unregistered who found jobs in the Middle East and employed visiting those countries under visit visa or free visa category (mostly sent by their friends and relatives).
This is considered a ‘norm’ and many have been working under this technically illegal category. However, they are part of the revenue earners for Sri Lanka and cannot be neglected or ignored.
Deputy General Manager (Training), SLBFE, M. P. Randeniya acknowledged unregistered workers are facing immense hardship.
He spelt out many new initiatives are underway for the migrant workers. He said in post-pandemic many would opt to work in the Middle East which is a traditional labour market where over 900,000 Sri Lankans are employed.
While the Government also encourages moving to emerging labour markets, the Middle East is where the money is. He said new markets such as Romania, Japan Moldova, Malta, Lithuania, Russia, Georgia etc have restrictions and their Government rules don’t favour the migrant workers as much as the Middle East does. He viewed that workers sometimes don’t return but migrate from the new markets and Sri Lanka would lose their remittance whereas, workers will have to return to Sri Lanka and the manpower and skills would remain in the country when they are employed in the Middle East, Israel, Cyprus or in East Asia. They have international obligations that workers have to return once the contract is over.
The SLBFE says nearly 70% of the migrant workers from Sri Lanka are skilled and training in over 400 training centres in Sri Lanka. Randeniya added,“Anyone wanting to leave the country for jobs should get their National Vocational Qualification Certificates before departure. He also pointed out at these centres they are educated on the ILO recommendations and tutored on labour rights and human rights.
Randeniya also pointed out even recruitment agencies are trained in workshops and strict measures are taken on agency those cheat on migrant workers.
He said the SLBFE advocates all those who are on visit visa or free visa, once they are employed should get an employment contract letter from their bosses and register with the Sri Lankan mission and that makes them entitled to all benefits from the SLBFE.
The best is to leave the country with an approved, certified job visa and even a visit visa or free visa is not advisable. There have been cases covid-19 bodies were not even repatriated and buried in the desert-like orphans and Government does not render any support to those who are living illegally overseas.
Then there are also runaway workers who are abused and living elsewhere and not at the contract worker’s residence. They work in many places until their visa expires resulting in arrests and detained in camps. They also seek redress from the agency and the SLBFE does not cater to their needs as their priority to those who are registered with them and pay an annual contribution to the SLBFE.
Randeniya further states, very soon more migrant workers will arrive in Sri Lanka and the SLBFE has selected nearly 14 hotels (for 500 packs) that would quarantine them and they would be funding. He said they are getting approval from those hotels to cater to the need and so far six hotels have obtained the COVID-19 approved certification.
On 12 April, two flights of migrant workers are expected from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia mainly he said. But he said these hotels are not solely for the migrant workers as well. He said these are for stranded workers and those who need urgent repatriation.
He said the new rules set by the covid-19 task may reduce hassles as those who have taken the two COVID-19 jab can be self-quarantined in their homes and others will remain for a short period in the hotels. On the following day if the PCR test is negative they would be able to leave the hotel.
On working closely with the migrant workers overseas the SLBFE is gearing to deploy over 100 officials to ‘look after' the workers, he added.
He said in all 14 Sri Lankan missions in the Middle East there are only one or two SLBFE staff present and that also added to the chaos the workers faced there. He said most of the SLBFE officials in the ME mission had to return due to ‘unavoidable circumstances. “The officials who will be in the ME would look into their protection and welfare, promotion and work closely, he added. When asked whether this action comes so late, he said after several discussions and approval they are now processing to send SLBFE officials to the ME.
He said there are over 20,000 workers who want to return to Sri Lanka currently.
When asked why some of the migrant workers were asked to check-in hotels where they have to spend all their earnings, he said those migrant workers ‘lied’ in the beginning that they want to stay in the hotels so that they can board the flight. Later on, they wanted to go to Government quarantine centres which led to such unpleasant moments.
He said the migrant workers should only request for Government quarantine centres and no other places and not change their minds over it as that place is fixed by the covid-19 task force.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants defines a migrant worker as a “person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a state of which he or she is not a national.”
In 2011, ILO members – made up of Government, worker and employer delegates from the 183 ILO member states – took a significant step to address the comission of domestic workers from basic job protections by adopting the ‘Decent Work for Domestic Workers’ convention. It was the first ILO convention covering informal sector work and a historic move in defining domestic work as work. Sri Lanka is not among the countries that so far have ratified the convention.
However, the legal rights of domestic workers are still in an embryonic stage. Further, many labour and human rights activists have assessed the Colombo Process as focused on formalising migration for Government advantage, with little benefit for the workers involved. As a result, the worst forms of labour exploitation have yet to be comprehensively addressed.
The parties agreed to affirm their commitment to collaborate in the implementation of the Decent Work Country Programme (DWCP) which are: Priority 1 – Creation of sustainable, inclusive and decent employment; Priority 2 – Better Governance of the Labour Market; Priority 3 – Rights at work for all; Enabling Outcome 4 – Greater data and knowledge generation.
Nevertheless, labour migration and associated remittances remains a significant contributor to GDP and families depend on them. Certain Sri Lankan regulations are attributed to having stemmed the outflow of females migrating for domestic work, and conversely many of these women are suspected of having turned to irregular migration channels.
Sri Lanka’s labour migration policy and its sub-policy on the reintegration of returning migrant workers recognised as a model for several other countries. Nevertheless, given the highly dynamic nature of labour migration, the policy that was adopted nearly a decade ago, is now undergoing revision to better reflect changes in labour market supply and demand within the country, in the region, and destination countries. Similarly, changes to the Foreign Employment Act and accompanying rules need a revisit, to cast the net wider to regulate the role of sub-agents in the recruitment process. Similarly, there are gaps in the regulatory framework on forced labour and trafficking that needs examination, particularly given the specific vulnerability of migrant workers to abusive recruitment and employment practices.