By Yoshitha Perera
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to have a widespread impact on workforces globally, migrant workers are among those bearing the burden of the crisis. Many human rights and advocate groups have warned that migrant workers are vulnerable to the emerging impacts of the pandemic.
In Sri Lanka, annual foreign exchange earnings from worker remittances stood at nearly USD 7 billion. Earnings from migrant workers are an integral part of the country’s economy. However, as the pandemic grows these migrant workers are at risk due to inadequate and crowded living conditions, global lockdowns, limited access to healthcare and basic services and poor working conditions.
Insight spoke to several officers of the chief state institution which handles affairs relating to migrant workers, the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (SLFEB). SLFEB senior management officials, Chairman Kamal Ratwatta, General Manager W.M.V. Wansekara, Deputy General Manager (Legal) L. M. K. Muthukumarana and Deputy General Manager (Social Development & Conciliation) W. Leelarathne spoke to Daily Mirror Insight on several matters.
How migrant employees can protect their rights
SLFEB Senior Management officials said that currently the bureau has issued two circulars to all foreign employment bodies, welfare sections of Embassies and all recruitment agents in Sri Lanka to educate sponsors through the agents in host countries to look after Sri Lankan employees under the agreement or contract. SLFEB officials also said that the conditions on the two circulars were valid until the Covid-19 pandemic alleviates, whether the contractual period of the migrant workers has lapsed or not.
Human Rights Lawyer Lakshan Dias who has provided legal representation in several migrant workers issues in the country said that the employers has to take the permission from the labour commissioner in advance if they are taking any action on the job of the employee during this pandemic situation.
“Overall companies cannot neglect employee rights, pay a lesser salary or terminate them from service. But the problem is that the law remains unclear during a pandemic. Even though the Labour Commissioner has agreed to do so, it’s not according to law, that they can be challenged. Even employees can go to labour tribunals. But the issue is the present economy. What if the employers stop their businesses? Can they be asked to pay compensation by the labour commissioner and tribunals? What about job security? Will it not be a crisis in the job market?” Mr. Dias raised these questions.
He said that in the context of a pandemic an employer and employee have to build a good dialogue between them, since this is not a normal situation according to the labour conditions. “Both parties can make a rescue plan for both sides. Especially, in the international arena where some big corporates have already started salary cuts and cost cutting measures,” he said.
Mr. Dias also mentioned that third world countries are at present unable to manage their economies adding that those countries have no social security system. “Most of the rich countries can pump money to certain businesses internationally to avoid unemployment but in third world countries, they are unable to handle this situation because of weaker economies,” Mr. Dias said.
Meanwhile, SLFEB said that it had initiated a hotline 1989 a call-centre in operation for 24 hours and seven days of the week, to receive complaints from family members of migrant workers who are presently at the work place or out of the country.
“We are trying to attend to those complaints as much as possible without referring to the agents. But it is impossible to assist the persons who ran away from the work places before the pandemic started,” SLFEB officials said.
Specific Protection Mechanism
During the interview, SLFEB officials said that specific protection mechanisms were introduced by the bureau through employment and welfare sections of Sri Lankan Embassies. They said that the Embassies had taken steps to provide food and other essential items for Sri Lankan employees who are facing difficulties abroad due to the pandemic.
“Well-known places of the host country had been chosen for this purpose and in the meantime the employees were advised on how to protect themselves during this period. Financial assistance was also provided by SLBFE for food and other essentials,” the officials said.
Managing Returnees and Protecting Jobs
When Daily Mirror Insight questioned about protecting the jobs of returnees, SLBFE officials said that is depend on the decision of the employer or the policy decision of the host country. “The Government of Sri Lanka or the SLBFE is not in a position to make any request on behalf of illegal or over staying workers” senior Officials said.
Sources said that over 19,000 migrant workers are stranded in Kuwait without a valid visa nor passport. Most of these workers have expressed their wishes to return. Speaking of these workers SLFEB officials said that the Government of Kuwait has declared a pardon period for the persons (not Sri Lankans only) who are illegal residents of the country, without the knowledge of the sponsor or not working under the roof of the sponsor.
“The government of Kuwait wanted all departures under the legal channels such as details produced at the time of arrival of the person. If a huge number of passengers are coming towards to the airport in Sri Lanka, it is difficult to ensure their protection as well as the protection of people presently living in Sri Lanka,” Senior Management officials said.
SLFEB officials further said that if the signed contract has lapsed or was violated by the worker, agents in both countries are not liable to take responsibility to repatriate the worker to Sri Lanka or to protect their job. According to the authority negotiations are yet to be initiated for the reinstatement of workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. If the employee was recruited in any illegal way by a person in Sri Lanka, the bureau can sue the illegal recruiter under the provisions of the Act of SLBFE, they noted.
However, Attorney-at-Law Lakshan Dias said that in the Middle East and other West Asian countries human labour is facing a crisis. He highlighted that most of these people are service providers directly or indirectly, yet their lives are not covered justifiably under labour laws. “They have no protection in the working environment, life and even in job security,” he said.
The return of 20% of migrant workers will aggravate the prevailing labour conditions with surplus of labour where poor demanding capacity or bargaining power will be left with labour rights, labour conditions and wages too, he said.
“Sri Lanka’s migrant worker population is around 2 million. In India, they have population of over 20 million migrant workers. The Government of Sri Lanka cannot ignore this amount because these migrant workers were an integral component of the Sri Lankan economy. It is important the Governments cooperate with the host countries and build a common strategy for the labour migrants in those countries,” Mr. Dias said.
The role that the embassies have to play in this situation is huge. Through the embassies representatives of the governments can build a better dialogue with migrant workers and also coordinate with the migrant workers associations, charities and cultural groups and other service providers who closely associate with the migrant workers, he said.
He further said that the government through the embassies has to take coordinated efforts with charities in the receiving governments where women migrant workers are vulnerable to sexual harassments and rape. Some of such instances can be addressed through a colossal amount of money lying in SLBFE funds or existing bulk Insurance schemes. He also said that returnees, especially women migrant workers have to be protected by state officials when they return due to the threat of gender-based violence.
“In the post Covid-19 scenario as well as during the pandemic, the State has to be vigilant of fake recruitment agents who might exploit the vulnerabilities of former and current migrant workers. It is equally important that the governments has to draft new plans for migrant workers’ reintegration,” Mr. Dias added.