Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Protecting migrant workers

– Daily News – 3rd November 2009
Lionel Wijesiri
A phenomenon of our time that deserves close study is the way the Sri Lankan overseas contract workers have been growing and what its impact will be on the future of the country. The latest estimates indicate that 1.8 million Sri Lankan men and women are working abroad, which equals 25 percent of the total work force and nearly 10 percent of the total population.
It is no exaggeration to say that the foreign exchange remittance of our overseas contract workers has helped to keep the economy afloat. Last year, foreign exchange

Hopeful migrant workers at BIA. File photo
remittances to the Sri Lanka from our migrant workers totalled over US $ 2500 million, representing a large segment of the gross national product. At the same time, an encouraging note is that in spite of the global economic crisis, the deployment of Sri Lankan workers abroad continues to rise. New markets continue to be found by Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Agency.
Public policy
Time and again the Government has reaffirmed that adequate safety nets and protection should and will be provided to Sri Lankans who choose to work overseas legally. In fact, the Cabinet recently approved a Memorandum submitted by the Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare Keheliya Rambukwella to implement a National Labour Migration Policy for Sri Lanka . The overall objective of the policy is to advance opportunities for all who engage in migration for decent and productive employment in conditions of freedom and dignity. The Policy contains a detailed work plan outlining action to deal with important policy issues that have been identified.
Minimum salary
This policy declaration is, in fact, the first of its kind in the South Asian region. It also focuses on the welfare of migrant workers which include, entering in to bilateral MOU’s with destination countries for facilitating the welfare of the workers, introducing policies for minimum salary standards and introducing the host country operated compulsory insurance schemes for female migrant workers. The policy also talks of introducing a pension scheme for migrant workers.
The move has been hailed by the migrant workers as well as the related agencies as a step in the right direction. But, next comes the difficult part - implementation. Just like any public policy in Sri Lanka , it will also face many obstacles to successful implementation. I can foresee seven such major problems. Refusal to take serious strategic actions addressing these issues could translate to implementation delay and failure.
First, the administrators must change their lethargic mentality to a more pragmatic and optimistic one if the implementation is going to succeed; second, there is no room for lip service when dealing with high volatile issue that touches on so many lives.
Decision makers (both political and officials) must show strong will power to carry out reforms; third, continued Presidential leadership and guidance is required since labour migration is not just ordinary local policy - it requires attention on both national and international agenda; fourth, the Government and related agencies must ensure that front-line institutions of the executive and judicial branches have efficient mechanisms to enforce the laws and regulations; fifth, the citizenry should recognize that civil society support is vital to sustain policy implementation; sixth, the Government - through diplomatic channels - must induce the host countries to show understanding and respect for our labour force; seventh, decision-makers must realize that this is a long-term policy issue that needs lasting policy solutions. These are problems which should be tackled in a pragmatic way and solutions found before venturing forward.
Also critical to successful implementation is a strong Government capacity that allows for the representation and meaningful participation of migrant workers; political, administrative, financial transparency, accountability and the effective use of government employees. Further, since protection of migrant workers is a transnational issue that requires transnational solutions, partnerships across borders are also necessary. Destination countries should be active partners and should complement the offerings of welfare funds.
The new Migration policy also declares providing effective protection and welfare services to migrant workers and their family members. It is in this respect, I believe, we could take a lesson from the Philippine experience.
The Philippines ’ Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) is the world’s largest migrant welfare fund. It is an attached agency of the Department of Labour and Employment and the lead government agency tasked to protect and promote the welfare and well-being of Overseas Filipino Workers and their dependents.
Few recent events show how Philippine Government appreciates the contribution its migrant workers make to its economy. The OWWA declared that it is taking steps to create hospitals and hospital wings that would specifically cater to the medical needs of overseas Filipino workers and their dependents. “We always say that we are grateful to these workers, this is a way of showing them,” OWWA chief commented.
One more example is the fast-track Calamity Loan Center . It is meant to be for the families of active OWWA members when unexpected traumatic events disrupt their lives. The loan is granted with no interest, payable in 24 monthly installments with a grace period of 120 days from release.
The third example is the Education for Development Scholarship Program. It is a scholarship grant offered to qualified beneficiaries/dependents of OWWA members who intend to enroll in any four to five-year bachelor’s degree course. Another privilege is ‘The Skills for Employment Scholarship Program.’
It is a scholarship program in coordination with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, to OWWA member or their dependents/beneficiaries. A qualified applicant may avail of either a one-year technical of a six-month vocational course offered following the regular school year calendar.
A well-organized membership-driven welfare fund like OWWA can benefit migrants in a number of ways. Once its limitations are addressed, such a fund can be a useful template for us as we face the mounting challenges of protecting our workers abroad. The bottom line is if we want to realize the benefits of the migrant worker’ policy, we must overcome all limitations. We must tailor services to the immediate or core needs of overseas workers without overextending the Government’s capacity, as well as of creating meaningful partnerships with members of the civil society and the private sector.
Not surprisingly, the Sri Lankan overseas work force is one of the most talked about areas by sociologists, economists and anthropologists.
Armed with their case studies and demographical statistics, they have gone into topics ranging from the costs and benefits of the exodus to the national development to the effects on the workers’ family, households and communities.
But surprisingly, only a few analysts have attempted to apply their models to explain the political and social dimensions of this human phenomenon.
There is much scope for in-depth study in this field. For example, one understudied question is how the transnational labour is slowly eroding the traditional notions of our country.
The inter-relationship of overseas workers’ human rights, gender and feminization, cultural adjustment and mental health are also interesting themes.

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