Sri Lankan labour migration currently stands at around 1.6 million with an annual outflow of about 200,000 persons and generates a substantial inflow of remittances, especially through women employment, relieving the country’s unemployment pressure. Recently the government of Sri Lanka signed MOU’s with Saudi Arabian and Qatar governments to protect migrant workers’ rights in the respective countries. Unfortunately these MOU’s have not addressed their voting rights in at least general elections. These MOU’s have taken several initiatives to ensure decent work, dignity of labour and protection of human rights and freedom of migrant workers, considering their families as well. The Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare was set up in recognition of the importance of labour and migrant related activities.
The main issue according to NHAP is a loss of franchise of migrants workers due to refusal of registration by Grama Niladaries and inability to vote while working abroad. Further NHAP categorically decided to conduct a study on the absentee balloting systems in other countries and make proposals on a suitable system for use by Sri Lanka
Therefore, it is high time to consider Migrant workers Voting Rights and the Election Commissioner must take necessary steps to amend the existing election laws that even give them access to proxy or on-line voting rights. As a policy matter all candidates contesting at the presidential election must take serious concern about this matter.Voting is a fundamental right of citizens in a country. There are many dual-citizens permanently residing in many countries and even they have no access to cast their vote from abroad.
National Human Rights Action Plan 2011-2016, focus area 11.1 addresses this issue specifically as the right to vote ensuring franchise of migrant workers and the responsibility given to the Commissioner of Elections Department to make recommendations to the state. The main issue according to NHAP is a loss of franchise of migrants workers due to refusal of registration by Grama Niladaries and inability to vote while working abroad. Further NHAP categorically decided to conduct a study on the absentee balloting systems in other countries and make proposals on a suitable system for use by Sri Lanka.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) and the International Covenant on the Protection of Migrant Workers and their families (ICMW) have guaranteed the voting rights of migrant workers. But over a million of internal and external migrant workers of Sri Lanka have been deprived of their right to vote to select a leader of their choice despite their voting rights stipulated in ICMW, due to the lack of necessary legal and implementation framework put in place by the government. The International Convention on Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, ratified by Sri Lanka in 1996 clearly states that they “shall have the right to participate in public affairs of their state of origin and to vote and to be elected at elections of that state in accordance with its legislation. The State concerned shall as appropriate and in accordance with their legislation facilitate the exercise of these rights”.
There can be some practical problems faced by the Election Commissioner when the election laws change and migrant workers are granted voting rights. In reality Sri Lanka must have a plan to implement in the future, because the National Human Rights Action Plan categorically describes to grant this right by the 2016 elections. Further this can lead to other human rights problems in the Geneva Human Rights Council sessions in future, because the National Human Rights Action Plan is our product and has been approved by the Cabinet.
One solution is where Sri Lankan migrant workers can be given postal voting rights to vote from where they work or by temporarily opening
an office with the co-ordination of foreign governments.
Another solution is to place a ballot box in the relevant embassy or Councillor’s General Office on the election date (overseas voting). I think this is more relevant because many foreign embassies in Sri Lanka practice this method when General elections are conducted in their home countries. If the migrant worker is living in far away areas, then the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka can negotiate with the employer and request to grant them a few hours leave to reach these places where the ballot boxes are kept. In Australia, citizens can participate in the polls by casting their vote at Australian Embassies, High Commissions or Consulates in the country they are in or they can vote by post.
Likewise, the migrant employee can give proxy rights to another to cast his vote in his absence (absentee voting).
Voting can be made compulsory as practiced in Australia, where the Australian Electoral Commission encourages people to enrol and vote while overseas although it is not compulsory. Within the country, however, voting is mandatory by law and non-compliance results in a fine of Australian $50
With the introduction of emerging technology like the Electronic Transaction Act, the vote can be cast by a more protected e-mail sent to the Elections Commission Department or a secured web portal can be created in the Election Commissioners Department to cast his vote. With regard to E-mail voting, this e-mail can be encrypted and protected with secrecy and privacy where no one can hack or monitor it.
Finally, voting can be made compulsory as practised in Australia, where the Australian Electoral Commission encourages people to enrol and vote while overseas although it is not compulsory. Within the country, however, voting is mandatory by law and non-compliance results in a fine of Australian $50.