"Many of them who sought greener pastures abroad due to debts at home or unemployment, have been pushed into debts once again to return to their homeland and have been put at risk of destitution"
"Since the government has started charging closer to Rs. 300,000 for PCR tests and mandatory quarantine formalities, we have been forced to spend the hard-earned money that we have saved for years"
Sri Lanka’s migrant workers are a significant part of our economy, with their remittances accounting for the second largest share of the country’s foreign exchange earnings (8% of GDP in 2019), after merchandise exports. With government sponsored repatriation process is being carried out in a slow trickle, Sri Lankan migrant workers who have been drastically hit by COVID-19 pandemic, are struggling to find money to return to their homeland through paid flights and paid quarantine.
Many of them who sought greener pastures abroad due to debts at home or unemployment, have been pushed into debts once again to return to their homeland and have been put at risk of destitution. Some families are selling their houses or lands to send money and repatriate their kith and kin from abroad.
Allegation levelled by a domestic aide in Oman
In this backdrop, a video circulated in social media where a Sri Lankan housemaid in Oman voicing her and her fellow housemaids’ grievances. She claimed that they even had to consider engaging in prostitution to earn enough money to afford for the paid quarantine package. This unverified, yet a very serious allegation that stirred a controversy in social media and much criticism on the part of the government.
“For more than a year since the pandemic, we have been uploading videos on social media platforms such as Facebook and pleading the Sri Lankan government to bring us back to our motherland. But, nothing has happened so far. We have worked in Middle East for two years as per our contract and saved some money with an intention of building our future in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, since the government has started charging closer to Rs. 300,000 for PCR tests and mandatory quarantine formalities, we have been forced to spend the hard-earned money that we have saved for years. Some of us came abroad to settle our debts back home. However, now we have to borrow money again just to travel back to our own motherland. How unfair and inhumane is this? When other countries are repatriating their migrant workers from the Middle East, Sri Lanka, which heavily depends heavily on the earning we send home, has neglected us,” the female worker from Oman said when was spoken to.
"Since the pandemic struck, so far 107 Sri Lankan nationals including 89 migrant workers had fallen prey to the virus"
Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) is of the view that based on one claim of a female migrant worker, it is ridiculous to generalize that the majority of Sri Lankan workers have been pushed to such a desperate situation. Deputy General Manager of the SLBFE Mangala Randeniya, speaking to the Daily Mirror said, publishing such statement on a widely spread network like Facebook would tarnish the image of all Sri Lankan housemaids who have contributed immensely for the country’s economy.
State sponsored or paid travel back home?
Randeniya stated that with limited resources in the country to accommodate a large number of people who need to be quarantined and also the need to arrange extra quarantine and treatment facilities after the unprecedented emergence of COVID-19 cluster in the country, the Sri Lankan government found the repatriation process is challenging. According to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, more than 61,000 Sri Lankans have been repatriated by the government, while about a same number of Lankans are waiting for several months to return via state-sponsored travel package.
"Some workers have requested members of their families to shoulder this cost and pay on behalf of them at the offices that were set up for this purpose in Sri Lanka"
The travel package, which includes the air fare, two PCR tests and a 14-day mandatory quarantine, costs between Rs. 250,000 - 300,000 per head. Being unable to secure that amount of money, some workers have requested members of their families to shoulder this cost and pay on behalf of them at the offices that were set up for this purpose in Sri Lanka. With little savings and huge debts already, the workers who have even been unemployed since the pandemic struck, are left with no option, but to stay in the long waiting-list for state sponsored repatriation.
89 deaths till now; no single family was compensated yet
The Sri Lankan government said it would pay compensation for the migrant workers who had died in foreign countries due to COVID-19. Since the pandemic struck, so far 107 Sri Lankan nationals including 89 migrant workers had fallen prey to the virus. SLBFE said the insurance compensation of Rs. 500,000 or 600,000 would be paid to migrant workers who have registered with the SLBFE and died while being employed abroad.
According to the 2019 agreement entered with the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, a compensation of Rs. 500,000 is paid for an ordinary death that occurs while working abroad for migrant workers registered with the Bureau, covers for deaths occur due to COVID-19 as well.
"It has been a year since the first death of a migrant Sri Lankan worker was reported. Yet the files for the compensation payment are still being prepared"
This compensation has been increased to Rs. 600,000 for those who had registered after March 16, 2020 and went abroad. For those who died after their registration had expired, will be awarded a compensation of Rs. 300,000 under a special welfare fund, the SLBFE said. In addition, Rs. 40,000 will be paid for the religious rites of each deceased, and it was increased by Rs. 10,000 from the earlier Rs. 30,000 for those who had died due to COVID-19.
As of the first week of January this year, 89 Sri Lankan migrant workers have died due to COVID-19. It has been almost a year since the first death of a Sri Lankan migrant worker was reported. Yet, the files for compensation payment are still being prepared. The SLBFE Deputy General Manager said the compensation process takes longer than expected due to difficulties in verifying legal hiring of Sri Lankan workers.
He said the data verification process encountered difficulties due to the present pandemic situation in the country as well. According to him, files to finalize 40,000 payments for religious rites of the deceased and also the insurance payments are still being processed.
The SLBFE, was formed in 1985 with one of its objectives being the establishment of an Overseas Workers Welfare Fund (OWWF). The OWWF aims to meet all expenses incurred in providing assistance to Sri Lankan migrant workers and their families. The Fund offers a compulsory insurance scheme, coverage of cost of repatriation of migrant workers, scholarships for children, and loan schemes with partner banks to cover migrants’ pre-departure costs and initiate self-employment schemes. The Fund also supports returnees who have been rendered disabled while being employed overseas.
"A female domestic worker said she with other female workers even considered engaging in prostitution to earn enough money to afford for the paid quarantine package"
When we asked about the possibilities of using the funds to sponsor repatriation of needy migrant workers, Randeniya said discussions are still underway in this regard and also added that such decisions need special approvals from the higher authorities of the government.
The migrant workers, despite being highly vulnerable have remained the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy. However, the pandemic has put them in a more precarious condition. On the one hand, they have lost their jobs and earnings, and they desperately want to return to their homeland because they think even if they are infected, they rather want to die in their own soil. On the other hand, they do not have enough resources to survive at the place of migration since the pandemic.