By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
The Sri Lankan government will look to streamline the regulatory process which has so far handicapped the ability of local companies to hire foreign labour by providing greater powers to the Immigration and Emigration Controller, according to Finance State Minister Eran Wickramaratne.
“Two weeks ago, I had a discussion with the Controller of Immigration and Emigration, and I told him that he will be soon getting the power to make that decision. Yesterday, I followed it up, and it might require Cabinet approval,” Wickramaratne told a forum in Colombo, yesterday.
He said that in the past, requests companies made to the Immigration and Emigration Department had to be forwarded to the relevant line ministries, which would take several months to decide whether to allow or deny the request, by which time, firms may have lost the opportunity which required foreign expertise.
“The position that came from the industry was very simple. Annually they will decide the skill sets they need, and give him (the Immigration and Emigration Controller) the list, and let him make a decision on the spot. Then review the list from time to time depending on the needs of the economy,” Wickramaratne told the Economic Freedom Summit organized by the free-market think
The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), in its recently released ‘State of the Economy 2017’, recommends the establishment of a competent macro-level authority which could capture foreign credential evaluation beyond individual professional bodies impartially.
This appears to be similar to the process set up in several advanced countries such as Australia and
The IPS noted that this would allow Sri Lankan employers to evaluate from a pool of equally qualified talent from both local and foreign labour markets.
Previous attempts to liberalize Sri Lankan labour markets by loosening regulations for foreign labour, or enabling the movement of natural persons through trade agreements, have been successfully defeated by some professional bodies and fraternities, such as doctors.
“If your industries think they want lawyers (and) doctors, go get them, even from overseas. The question is not a question for government. It’s coming from the professions itself. The professions sometimes for good reason, and sometimes only for protectionism, are basically safeguarding their positions,” Wickramaratne said. While noting that the government will not lay down policies which will create such vacuums in labour markets, he said the government accepts the arguments of some professionals on the need to maintain both global and local standards when accepting labour from the global markets.
Ceylon Chamber of Commerce Chief Economist Anushka Wijesingha noted that the professional associations, which had opposed opening markets under Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India by saying that they need to get the house in order locally, are making the same argument 10 years later against the Economic and Technology Corporative
“So between then and last year, what were these professional associations doing?” he questioned. Former Central Bank Deputy Governor W. A. Wijewardena earlier this week said that approximately 8,000-10,000 visas are provided by the Immigration and Emigration Department for migrant workers, annually.
Meanwhile, there are currently around 200,000 illegal foreign workers in Sri Lanka, working mainly in lower-level positions in the construction and agriculture sectors by taking advantage of the informal structure of the Sri Lankan economy. These two sectors, along with tourism, ship building, apparel and plantation sectors have been requesting from the government the addition of foreign labour to fill gaps in the market.
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