Patriotic National Movement’s General Secretary Dr. Wasantha Bandara, in an interview with the Daily Mirror says the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India would be detrimental to the country’s entire labour market. Therefore, he said it should not be viewed as an issue of medical professionals only. Excerpts of the interview:
Not merely an issue concerning medical professionals only
Indian migratory workers will flood labour market
It will cause untold hazards
Q How do you see the present lull on activities for the proposed Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA?)
More than the ETCA, the Constitution-making process is crucial for the government as things stand at the moment. This government was installed merely for the purpose of bringing about a new Constitution by those with vested interests. It was stressed upon by all concerned in clear-cut terms. Starting from one time US Foreign Secretary Hilary Clinton to Government MP Jayampathi Wickramaratne, it was the slogan. They held the belief that a new Constitution was unrealistic as long as President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power. They defeated him and installed this government solely to work out the new Constitution. So, it has taken precedence over everything else in the government. In case the government fails to muster the two-thirds for it, it would herald the collapse of the government. It is a foregone conclusion. Along with the end of the Constitution-making process, it will ensure the political death knell of the government. The ETCA has taken a back beat as a result.
The government is planning to work out 15 legislations that, if enacted, would enable the global multinational companies to access the economic nerve centres of the country. These are in the pipeline. The ETCA is only part of this whole exercise. The government would not give up on it. If the government brings the constitution making process to a successful conclusion, it would pay attention to the ETCA with full force. This is a political game. If the ETCA is prioritized instead, the government would be subjected a huge public protest. The government would be left in the lurch, being unable to do anything. It would affect the Constitution-making process. I believe even India might have instructed the government to focus more on the Constitution-making process first.
"Lowering the wage limit, there should be a huge importation of labourers to the country from outside. It is not the mere arrival of some doctors, architects etc. For such categories, doors are open to some extent even now."
Q How do you view the ETCA?
In our country, people mostly believe that it is a matter of concern for medical and other professionals. There is a reason for it. It was these professionals who sensed the impending danger first and took initiatives for public awareness. Its impact on professionals is minimum in the broad picture, in my analysis. It is an issue concerning the entire labour market. For example, the government is trying to lower the wage limit. Here, a labourer is paid Rs.1,000-1,200. It is a high cost for local manufacturers. With such a high labour cost, they cannot compete in the international market for their products. Likewise, foreign investors cannot be attracted in the same fashion. So, they want to bring it down to somewhere close to Rs.750. The daily wage of an estate labourer is that. That is the price tag determined for labour within this economic system. For lowering the wage limit, there should be a huge importation of labourers to the country from outside. It is not the mere arrival of some doctors, architects etc. For such categories, doors are open to some extent even now. In India, there are as many as 120 million migratory labourers working in urban areas of India. They account for more than 10% of the Indian population. Of this migratory labour population of India, 10% travel even across the border and work in different countries. They work in Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong etc. They go as construction workers mostly. The construction industries of these countries thrive on cheap Indian labour. Some travel with work permits and others without. These labourers toil, sometimes for 12 hours a day, amid untold difficulties in the absence of health facilities and safety standards. They stay in labour camps. They sleep in crammed, tinned sheds. It is reminiscent of slavery that prevailed in history. They are prone to diseases. Tuberculosis (TB) is prevalent among them. They have low nutritional intakes. From their meagre income, they have to save something as their take- home savings. They frequent prostitutes. It leads to sexually transmitted diseases. HIV infection is very high among them. If they come here, it would create health hazards in our country. Local labourers would also get lower salaries if there was an influx of foreign cheap labour.
Q How would it happen?
This would be done by manpower companies. Indian companies would come and set up such companies. Indian labourers are used to low living standards unlike our workers. If their salaries get reduced drastically, it would be mentally painful. In our country, farmers sometime work as part time labourers during the off-season. Once their cultivation period is over, they work at medium level estates in their localities. They work as agricultural labourers. The estate authorities also stand a chance to get cheap foreign labourers from manpower companies if the agreement is signed and implemented.
"India considers its labour force as its fifth army virtually. Today, in Sri Lanka, India has a political clout through estate workers"
Q Anyway, the government argues that the service sector would not be covered under the ETCA. Then, why do you harbour such fears?
The government repeatedly says the mode 4 of service trading - the movement of natural persons - will not be covered. The government cannot do so. We have signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which covers international trade in goods. That is with the World Trade Organization. When we sign any form of service agreement with another country having signed the same GATT, our minimum commitments given under the GATT would apply. We have committed under the GATT to open the mode 4 of service trading. When we opt for service trading with India as a country having signed GATT, we cannot deviate from this position. We cannot say no to opening the mode 4. If we sign the ETCA, the mode 4 of service trading would apply automatically because of our commitments under GATT. India has signed GATT after placing a lot of conditions such as tough visa regulations, limitation of openings for foreign, workers etc. We have signed it yet with minimum conditions. We have only said visas would be issued in accordance with the prevalent immigration and emigration laws of the country. There are no major restrictions here. When one applies, a visa could be obtained. For example, if an Indian company invests in the construction field here, it would submit a list of workers they need. They may not call these workers labourers. They will be called as craftsmen, master craftsmen etc. we cannot place restrictions. Visas would be issued through the normal procedure. Inroads could be made in this manner even to the public service.
There are two Bills in the pipeline to be enacted for the regulation of work in the education and health sectors. Of them, if the health authorities’ Bill is enacted, each hospital would have its own management body. Then, each body would have the authority to make recruitments. It could make recruitments from the public service or from outside as contract workers. It would turn to manpower companies in that context. It would make way for the recruitment of foreign nationals. Even sex workers may enter the country in this manner. The situation would be compounded worse if the bridge was built connecting India with Sri Lanka.
Q How could you stop signing the agreement then?
It could be done only by rallying people against it. There is a fault here. Today, it is seen as an issue of doctors or other professionals. It is not. This is an issue concerning the entire labour market. This is the reality to be understood. Even the political parties project it as an issue of doctors.
"It would make way for the recruitment of foreign nationals. Even sex workers may enter the country in this manner. The situation would be compounded worse if the bridge was built connecting India with Sri Lanka"
Q On what evidential basis, did you formulate your opinion on this as an issue concerning the entire labour market?
For the first time, India is trying to sign this agreement. This is a serious agreement. If you look at the manner in which Indian migratory labourers work, Sri Lanka is a paradise on the earth for them. For this government, it is needed to lower wages to reduce production costs.
As for investors, we managed to get Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) worth US $ 600 million only last year. A country like Malaysia gets US $ 20 billion. Labour cost is the problem here. If low cost labour is provided, foreign investors would flood the country to invest in the manpower intensive industries. Manpower issue is the bottleneck here.
Q But, the government says there is no finalization of the ETCA. Then, how do you see such a crisis looming?
When studying the Indian labour market, all data is available. We could access them. Then, we could analyse the situation. India considers its labour force as its fifth army virtually. Today, in Sri Lanka, India has a political clout through estate workers. In Fiji, the Indian labour force is big enough for any political impact to be made.
As for trading in goods, it is an issue for them even now.