The apex body of Sri Lanka’s foreign employment agencies, the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA), says it is powerless to act against the errant foreign employment agencies, which are exploiting the country’s migrant workers, due to an amendment introduced to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) Act, in 2009.
“We always hear news on how recruitment agencies cheat and how they send people with wrong information.
We have already formulated a code of conduct. However, it’s necessary to empower the association to punish the offenders to implement the code of conduct,” ALFEA ex-official and member P.S. Selvaratnam said.
He was speaking at a workshop titled ‘Role of Journalism in Labour Migration’, organised by Community Development Services (CDS),
Sri Lanka Development Journalists Forum and Omnicom Media Group, with the support of Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, in Colombo, yesterday.
The ALFEA was constituted under the SLBFE Act No. 21 of 1985 and the Sub-Section 3 of Section 54 of the act stipulates that ‘Every licensee shall become the member of the association’. However, Selvaratnam noted that the government in 2009 amended the act making it optional for licensees to join the association.
“Earlier, the association stood up to various kinds of unethical behaviours of licensees. Despite political influence, we were able to take tougher actions against these errant agencies. That was a problem for certain people. Hence, they brought this amendment making it optional to become a member of the association. So, if someone is not a member of the association, we are unable to regulate or punish them,” he elaborated.
According to Selvaratnam, there are about 800 licensed foreign employment agencies in the country. However, only 300 of them are members of the ALFEA.
Further, he noted this particular amendment has also restricted the ALFEA’s ability to resolve disputes and disagreements between licensees, a key of function of the association.
Selvaratnam lamented the SLBFE’s lack of appetite to seek the industry inputs in their decision-making process.
Although, the SLBFE Act initially intended to appoint four members from licensed foreign employment agencies to the SLBFE board, he said that the measure was never implemented with the SLBFE board being filled with political appointees.
The key objectives of the SLBFE include promotion and development of employment opportunities outside Sri Lanka, assistance and support for Sri Lankan foreign employment agencies in their growth and development and undertaking measures to develop overseas markets for skills available in Sri Lanka.
“Unfortunately, the association hardly gains an opportunity to give our inputs to the bureau or government, that’s the reality. When you ask for an appointment, it takes about two months, three months or even six months. They view it as privilege than a necessity for us to provide our inputs to the bureau. Therefore, those objectives were never realised.”
Due to lack of coordination between the SLBFE and ALFEA, Selvaratnam pointed out that the SLBFE and government are unaware of the obstacles foreign employment agencies are facing in competing with other labour-sending countries and other realities, hence depriving both Sri Lankan migrant workers and service providers of numerous opportunities.
He claimed foreign employment agencies are currently single-handedly carrying out the promotion and development of employment opportunities without any support from the SLBFE or government.
Several members of the ALFEA have submitted their applications to contribute to the industry as board members of the SLBFE with the new government’s pledge to appoint officials on a merit basis.
However, the applied members are yet to receive any feedback or any acknowledgments on their applications.
In 2018, over 46,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers departed for overseas employment through foreign employment agencies.
Sri Lanka earned US $ 7.1 billion as worker remittances in 2018 and further US $ 132 million of foreign exchange was also earned as agency fees from foreign employers.
Around 1.7-1.9 million Sri Lankans are employed overseas with 80 percent of them based in six Gulf countries. In addition, approximately 15,000 are directly and indirectly employed in foreign employment agencies and sub-agencies.
Worker remittances are Sri Lanka second largest foreign exchange revenue earner, after merchandise exports, which stood at US $ 11.8 billion, in 2018. However, Selvaratnam noted that net foreign exchange earning from merchandise exports is much lower, as it includes value of re-exports and imported raw materials as well. (NF)