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To protect the welfare of Sri Lankan migrant workers, hold recruitment agencies accountable

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Many studies have documented the tremendous wage gains that migrant workers experience across borders.; however, it is also well understood that these riches come at a price and migrant stories of abuse are common knowledge
Photo Credit: Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa

The 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar centered the world’s attention on the abuse faced by thousands of primarily South Asian migrant construction workers. The spectacle was a rare opportunity to press the case for reform not just in Qatar, but across many Gulf-region governments whose glittering skylines conceal a staggering amount of migrant abuse. Yet, just as the fervour of fair weather football fans has waned, so too have international outrage and promises of reform. 
Many Sri Lankans migrate to the Gulf region because work opportunities at home simply do not compare. Study after study has documented the tremendous wage gains that migrant workers experience across borders. However, it is also well understood that these riches come at a price and migrant stories of abuse are common knowledge. Wages and passports are routinely withheld by employers, migrants are forced to work long, uncompensated hours in the desert sun, and many are subjected to physical, verbal and sexual abuse with few options for legal recourse.

Prior investigative reporting has documented the severity of abuse faced by Sri Lankan migrants in this region. However, detractors will often retort that this reporting is sensationalized and, instead, reflects a few ‘bad apples’ and intrinsically hazardous work. To paint a more complete picture of the abuse faced by migrants, over the last eight years, I’ve worked with a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame and Verité Research. 
With the support of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), we analyzed data on 1.4 million Sri Lankan migrants over a decade—85% of whom sought work in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait. Migrant workers and their families can make complaints about abuse and employer malpractice more generally to Sri Lankan consulates,  giving us a useful proxy for their experiences in the Gulf. 
You may think, as we did, that a report to a consulate is a high bar that may miss out on less severe abuse. Even so, 8.5% of migrants made complaints to Sri Lankan consulates between 2005 and 2015.  As we document, the abuse is widespread—and female domestic workers are especially vulnerable.
While construction workers account for 1 in 5 of migrants during this period, they account for just 9% of the roughly 120,000 complaints made (a complaint rate of 3.8%). In contrast, female domestic workers account for approximately 50% of all migrants to the Gulf region but 75% of all complaints. This amounts to over 1 in 10 female domestic workers making a complaint to a consulate (a complaint rate of 12.8%). While roughly 40% of these complaints relate to contractual breach and non-payment of wages, 16% are reports of harassment, sexual and physical abuse.
Our findings are largely consistent with prior investigative reporting and ethnographic research. The especially grave circumstances of female domestic workers across the Gulf region is unsurprising. They often find themselves at the mercy of employers who, by virtue of sponsoring their visas, have immense power over their lives. Reforms to the kafala visa system in the UAE have shown promising results, but too often these reforms are poorly enforced or explicitly exclude domestic workers.

Migration restrictions as a policy to address abuse

Two years after the controversial execution of 19-year old Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, the Sri Lankan government instituted the Family Background Report (FBR) policy. The policy imposed age-based restrictions on women and mothers with young children intending to migrate to the Gulf for domestic work.
The Sri Lankan government isn’t alone in responding to domestic political pressures by restricting migration; the governments of Nepal, Indonesia, and the Philippines have imposed similar restrictions in recent years. However, these restrictions often yield consequences that undermine their intent. Preliminary findings suggest the FBR policy had unintended effects on fertility and worsened the educational outcomes of children whose mothers had been barred from migration—a key rationale for the policy.  
Sri Lankan migrants are willing to alter their fertility decisions to circumvent restrictions because these labor market opportunities are enormously consequential to their own fortunes and those of their families. Consequently, migration restrictions may inadvertently encourage flows through unsafe channels and raise the risk of trafficking. Furthermore, in economies where remittances play an important role in macroeconomic stability, these restrictions are a severe misstep; a point that was, presumably, belatedly recognized when the demands of the FBR policy were relaxed after the recent financial crisis. 

Another way: Regulatory policy and migration intermediaries

Rather than sweeping migration restrictions, a nascent literature suggests that an alternative way to improve the welfare of migrants in the Gulf is to alter the incentives of intermediaries. Migration intermediaries, often referred to as recruitment (or ‘manpower’) agencies, assist migrants with the bureaucracy surrounding travel (passports, visas, etc.) and match migrants to employers abroad. When they operate with limited oversight, they have little reason to care about the quality of employers with whom they do business. 
In a new research paper, we found that an agency ratings system created by the SLBFE encouraged local agencies to place migrants with higher paying and less abusive foreign employers.  This programme consisted of two phases: (1) recruitment agencies were notified of the programme and were told they would be rated on certain criteria between 2010-12, and (2) a rating was calculated and revealed to the public.  Our findings show that the mere prospect of ratings being revealed to the public in the future successfully induced negligent recruitment agencies to place Sri Lankan migrants with better employers.  
We estimate that this programme costs roughly LKR 15 million but generated almost LKR 3 billion (USD 10 million) over a five-year period through increased remittance flows. Similarly, another recent paper shows that providing migrants with information on the quality of recruiters in Indonesia can improve the quality of jobs at which they are placed.

Towards developing evidence-based migration policy

The Sri Lankan government needn’t rely solely on the goodwill of their wealthy counterparts in the Gulf. They can make migration safer by improving the transparency of the risks and rewards that potential migrants may face abroad and by rewarding (or punishing) recruitment agencies who excel (or err) in their promised services. The government is sitting on a wealth of data on migration; where else do the various forms to embark, disembark or even apply for a visa end up? A crucial ingredient in developing robust, evidence-based policy on migration is that the Sri Lankan government, and its expansive bureaucracy, embrace data-transparency and are willing to partner with researchers and civil society. 
(Nilesh Fernando is a global academic network member at Verité Research and an assistant professor, Department of Economics at University of Notre Dame)

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