The Sunday Times, 13 May 2007 – Swamped by protests from local and international rights groups, the Sri Lankan government may be reconsidering a planned ban on young mothers being employed abroad. The March ban was announced by Minister of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment Sumedha G. Jayasena in an effort to restrict the migration of women with children less than five years on work because of the chaos it creates at home and the family.
But the plan was widely condemned by rights and migrant worker groups saying it was a violation of a basic fundamental right. Most protestors acknowledged the fact that women leaving their young children behind create serious social problems but noted that a travel ban was not the solution and urged the government to create social welfare and support structures to tackle the social consequences of young women migrating.Some groups even threatened to take the government to court on the question of the fundamental right to travel for every citizen.
Against this background Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Employment, Promotion and Welfare Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters on Tuesday that the plan is being reconsidered.
“It has been approved by cabinet but is yet to be ratified by parliament.
There are many issues being raised for and against including the right to travel issue. We are looking at the issues again and we will take a decision based on what is best for the migrant worker,” he said. He sounded miffed that different ministries were stepping into the arena of migrant workers which came under his purview.
“Various people (ministers) can say various things but ultimately the ministry and the affairs of migrant workers comes under my purview and we take the decisions,” he said, responding to comments made by his colleague, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama in Saudi Arabia last month that the government was planning to ban Sri Lankan women under 25 years from working abroad due to the social problems at home.
But Rambukwella, said the ministry was working hard to raise the profile of down-trodden workers, re-designate ‘housemaids’ as ‘housekeepers’ or ‘caregivers’ to make it a more dignified job and were looking for new markets with higher salaries.
A new pre-departure orientation centre where mostly housemaids and labourers would receive three days of intensive training and awareness on what to expect at the other end, is being set up near the Colombo airport.
L.K. Ruhunuge, Deputy General Manager at the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) said the 3-day crash course would deal with country specific issues, language, culture, counseling and foreign environment.
“The men and women preparing to go abroad will be housed at this centre which can accommodate 1,000 to 1,500 people and from there they would go straight to the airport,” he said.
Rambukwella said this would be a compulsory requirement for housemaids and low-skilled workers as it is beneficial to them and to the country.
The new rule which applies to more than 60 percent of Sri Lankans getting jobs overseas would considerably reduce the number of family, relatives and friends accompanying a migrant worker to the airport.
Thousands of Sri Lankans in vans and mini-buses crowd the airport daily either to wish those going overseas or greet those returning.
Meanwhile the government with the help of the ILO and migrant worker groups is also discussing the formulation of a national policy on migration as a follow up to the UN Convention on Migrants and the protection of their families which Sri Lanka has ratified.
Ruhunuge said the new guidelines would provide clear cut policies, protect rights and welfare of workers, recognition, national level awareness, migration limits and trafficking.
Rambukwella said legislation is also being drafted to punish those involved in trafficking of migrants and also over-stayers. “Often we have reports of Sri Lankans overstaying their visas which is bad for our country,” he said.
Sri Lanka was also tapping new markets outside the traditional Middle East which absorbs some one million of the 1.5 million Sri Lankans working overseas. These new emerging markets include Korea, Japan, Norway, Israel and Europe.
However both migrant worker support groups and job agents are unhappy with the government for different reasons.
Defenders of migrant workers like David Soysa, veteran director at the Migrant Worker’s Centre (MWC), believe the government says many things but does little. “The biggest problem of the workers is their rights in the workplace and the receiving country. They have no rights there and are often exploited,” he said adding that job agents should share the blame.
In February this year a group of Sri Lankan women working at a garment factory in Mauritius returned home complaining of poor housing, food and long working hours.
“We were forced to sleep in a room with 60 occupants cramped together,” said Amali Wijesinghe, a worker-turned matron.
“I joined as a sewing machine operator but when I began fighting for the rights of the workers, they promoted me to matron, raised my salary in the hope I would be silenced. But that didn’t change me,” she said. More than 200 Sri Lankan workers were deported after they protested over the conditions.
The MWC is in touch with a Belgium union which has links with Mauritius unions in a bid to obtain compensation for the deported workers.
Job agents on the other hand have an axe to grind with the government saying they receive no support from the authorities despite providing some 230,000 jobs annually for Sri Lankans overseas and remittances that salvage the country’s growing foreign debt burden.
“We provide thousands of jobs and reduce the unemployment problem but there are no state incentives for this industry unlike the plantations or garments,” said Suraj Dandeniya, a former president of the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agents. Garments and plantations were the main foreign exchange earners until remittances from migrant workers took over. These two sectors get a range of benefits including state grants and low-cost loans in addition to duty-free vehicles.
Migrant workers get some benefits from the government but recruitment agents say they get nothing – other than brickbats from all sides!