Sri Lanka’s foreign recruitment industry plays an essential role in the country’s migrant labour sector with the industry expecting to secure jobs for Sri Lankans within conditions of safety, security and dignity. Despite these conditions, however, a complaint has been lodged to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) to investigate cases of corruption during the 2015-2018 period against illegal recruitments by using the Foreign Employment Bureau’s license granted for agencies.
The complaint also referred that the officials attached to the Bureau provided support to carry out such a racket by securing bribes. However, due to the time restrictions, the Commissioners were compelled to omit this particular complaint.
It is a period where the country needs necessary regulations to the foreign employment industry to minimise incidents of exploitation and abuse of migrant workers.
The Daily Mirror spoke to several parties including the person who complained, to delve into the illegal recruitment racket.
- Minimum qualification for issuing a license is Ordinary Level examination
- Around 7% of population in employment overseas
- Total of 50,050 illegal recruitments were carried out in 2013, while 55,507 were recorded in 2014 and 11,291 in 2015
“When MP Thalatha Athukorala was appointed as the Minister of Foreign Employment, she appointed a commission to investigate certain allegations against the Foreign Employment Bureau (SLFEB). We too complained about this matter. However, after listening to those allegations against the FEB, certain officials attached to the Bureau found their ways of extorting money from migrant workers,” Wijeya Undupitiya, former Secretary of the Association Of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) and a Recruitment Consultant informed Daily Mirror.
He said that certain parties including agencies and officials attached to the Bureau collaborated and defrauded the public’s money. When investigations were launched the officials attempted to change the whole story the other way around, the Daily Mirror learned.
According to Mr Undupitya’s complaint to the PCoI, a total of 135,048 suspected illegal recruitments have been carried out using the FEB license from 2013 to 2018. The report also said that a total of 50,050 illegal recruitments were carried out in 2013, while 55,507 illegal recruitments occurred in 2014. Only 11,291 illegal recruitments took place in 2015.
Explaining the incident where Mr Undupitya commenced investigations into the matter, he said that he advertised a job opportunity for twenty-five taxi drivers and the sponsor had only selected six of them. When visas were issued, four of the six taxi drivers collected their passports, rejecting the job opportunity.
“We cannot send a man forcibly but after a couple of weeks, I received an email from my sponsor thanking me for sending four drivers adding that I had never informed the sponsor about their arrival. Investigating into the matter, I found an agency in Colombo had registered these workers under their license and sent them using my company’s details. This particular agency does not have the approval to send a person using my company’s registration, “he said.
He informed that the illegal agents named ‘Out Bureau’ send people by creating fraudulent documents. Mr. Undupitiya also uncovered thousands of similar illegal agents who were involved in this racket.
“I made a complaint to the bureau but they were reluctant to investigate into the matter,” he added.
He highlighted that they also found details of these fraudulent agents providing job orders and related training by collaborating with the bureau. “These fake agents are trying to register the migrant workers under them and trying to get seventy percent of the registration fee,” he said.
“Ranked second for continuing human trafficking in region”
-Keerthi Muthu kumarana
“We do not have the authority to use the term ‘blacklist’ in the Foreign Employment Bureau’s Act. We only issue a suspension such as temporary banning the recruitments for the job order, which we have given to the foreign agencies. In this manner, he or she can open the agency but they can’t conduct recruitment for the foreign countries,” Deputy General Manager, Legal and Investigations of SLFEB told the Daily Mirror.
He said that the cancellation of the license of an agency was mentioned in Section 31 of the Foreign Employment Bureau Act.
“However, the Act does not permit cancellation of the license for life, when illegal recruitment is spotted,” he said.
“There are instances where we had cancelled a particular bureau’s license indefinitely. In Rizana’s case, we took measures to ban a particular foreign agency for life and cancelled its license. But the court had never ruled against the particular foreign agency because the investigations, which were conducted were unable to unvover a direct connection of the particular agency over Rizana’s execution in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
When the Daily Mirror questioned whether the Bureau is aware of the complaint lodged at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) to investigate large scale corruption which happened between 2015-2018 government periods, Mr Muthukumarana said that the Bureau was not aware of any such complaint lodged with the PCoI.
“There might be incidents, even in the bureau where some officials support illegal agencies but so far we had not been made aware of such incidents. We authorise a migrant worker only after checking his or her previous experience or/and training. If they have the previous experience they can limit the period for training. There is an interview board for the selection process,” Mr Muthukumarana said.
He said that the interview board has knowledge on the particular migrant worker’s qualifications and the level of training and the interview board has included members from the bureau.
“There may be incidents where the interview panel messes the whole process of a migrant worker and we have to take measures for those kinds of misconducts,” he said.
Speaking about the process of providing the registration fee to agencies, Mr Muthukumarana said that the Bureau’s fist approval division has a particular formula to approve the related amount for the agencies.
He said that agencies have to clarify their actual expenses by submitting necessary certifications from the relevant authorities to obtain the registration fee.
Based on the credibly of the agency, the Sri Lankan Embassy will approve the job order and the particular job order will come to Sri Lankan Agent and they have to submit it to the bureau. The Sri Lankan agent can advertise the job in the media only after this approval
“Agencies, sponsors or a foreign agent has to clarify its authentic expenses to the Bureau through certifications by the relevant High Commission or Consulate,” he said.
He said that according to the Act, the Bureau was providing seventy percent of the registration fee to the licensee, if the license agent is sending the particular migrant worker for the first time.
There are also incidents where migrant workers sign bonds with the agencies and because of the bond, they cannot avoid the overseas employment under any emergency circumstance.
“Usually these migrant workers have been threatened by the particular owner of the agency and they cannot say no to their jobs. We can classify these kinds of incidents as a component of human trafficking. The forced labour is a part of human trafficking,” he said.
He also highlighted that most of these incidents happened through sub-agents, not from an actual licensee and the Bureau had strictly advised the agents not to levy any charge, especially in forms of commission from a sub-agent or migrant worker.
“If any such incident happened, the Bureau cannot take the responsibility to bring the particular migrant worker back to the country,” he said.
Discussing the process of issuing a license, he said that the minimum qualification for issuing a license was passing the Ordinary Level examination and a person should be well-reputed.
“Before issuing a license we obtain three reports from a Fraud Investigation Bureau, Defence Ministry and Criminal Record Division (CRD) about the particular licensee. A person with a clear record in all these areas, is the one who qualifies as a ‘well-reputed’ person, as stipulated in the Act,” he said.
Finally, he emphasised that there were such important things which should be added to the Foreign Employment Bureau (FEB) Act. He said that the policy-makers should consider those new elements promptly.
“Currently, Sri Lanka has been ranked second for continuing human trafficking in the region but we have to take measures to implement actions against those who violate the law,” he said.
“Act doesn’t cover migrant workers”
- Lakshan Dias
“In Sri Lanka we have no law for the protection of migrant workers or the human rights of the migrant workers. The Foreign Employment Act only refers to regulating the agencies and the welfare of the migrant workers but the Act does not cover the protection of migrant workers rights,” Human Rights Lawyer Lakshan Dias said.
He said that when there was a lacuna in the protection and rights of the migrant workers, the State intentionally kept them out of the Act, and there was no authority to protect the workers.
“The authors of the Act were concerned about only regularizing the agencies, the Bureau can provide the necessary protection and rights for migrant workers but it is far beyond what was expected of the Act,” he said.
The Out Bureau Agents could not be identified as known recruitment agents and migrant workers are compelled to find means for their protection.
Identifying such facts Mr Dias said that the Act mentioned the entire recruitment process had to take place through the agents.
“In the procedure when someone wants to recruit a worker, they have to find their agent and the particular agent has to inform the respective embassy of Sri Lanka that its client needs to recruit workers from the country. They have to explain the working conditions,” he explained.
“Based on the credibility of the agency, the Sri Lankan Embassy will approve the job order and the particular job order will come to the Sri Lankan Agent, where they have to submit it to the Bureau. The Sri Lankan agent can advertise the job in the media only after this approval,” he said.
He said that present laws were not adequate to handle the problems of migrant workers and this needs to be addressed.
Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on remittances sent by migrant workers. In 2018, Sri Lanka received remittances of over USD 7 billion, accounting for 7.9% of the GDP.
According to the SLBFE Corporate Plan 2017-2021, it is estimated that around 1.5 million Sri Lankans -- around 7% of the country’s population -- are in employment overseas.
In this manner, the recruitment aspect of the labour migration process has to be managed properly by the government and other relevant authorities.