May Day: Distress call from migrant workers

Today is International Labour Day, the day the workers of the world unite; but worker solidarity is the last thing that happens in Sri Lanka where political parties have hijacked the trade unions and march, not to a single drum, but down different roads.
In the United States, where this event was first commemorated after events in Chicago, Labour Day is now celebrated in September, and in countries like Russia, it is marked with a military parade. In Sri Lanka it is a classic display of worker disunity with anti-government or pro-government slogan shouting, worker rights being only a side-show to the spectacle.

This year, the Government has taken advantage of the day to sideline increasing dissent from trade unions, the latest being the proposed controversial private sector pension scheme, and to make a call for national unity instead with the release of a damning albeit thoroughly one-sided report by a panel of so-called experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary General purportedly to look into the last days of Sri Lanka's war against terror, but inclusive of various other issues as well. That this report was investigated with opaque eyes and drafted with tinted ink is plain to see. That Western powers are behind the UNSG's report is equally plain to see. That they lost a grip on Sri Lanka and lost their bargaining power to manipulate the destinies of this country through the continued war with separatist guerrillas was also evident. Whether the Government is justified in whipping the call for national unity in the face of such a report on a day like today is, however, another issue.

While much of the criticism today would be aimed at the United Nations Organisation, on the one hand, and trade union demands from across the political divide, it is imperative to focus on two other areas that normally lose attention in the usual hullabaloo of May Day rallies and the uproar that accompanies them. These two are the question of unemployment in the country, and the oft forgotten migrant workers; one twiddling their thumbs waiting for work, the other sweating it out in the inhospitable West Asian countries in particular. Spare a thought for them on this Labour Day.

There is a day dedicated for lovers, workers, children, mothers, fathers, press freedom, AIDS,…the list goes on, but there is no international day dedicated for the jobless, while the migrant worker at least has been considered for recognition on December 18 each year.

Sri Lanka's unemployment rate is put at nearly half a million but that is an official figure, and it is an admitted fact that youth unemployment, especially the educated youth (educated women youth in particular) remains a matter of grave concern. The unemployed rate was highest in the 15-29 age group and the number of persons under-employed, i.e. persons doing part-time jobs is countless. The last category would even include a number of children who are at work -- both fulltime though they cannot be counted as it would be illegal for them to work -- and part-time. There is a persistent mismatch between job opportunities in the market and aspirations and skills of the unemployed. The social indicators inexorably linked with this phenomenon such as malnourishment figures don't make for a pretty picture for a country that is happy to claim it has a growth rate of 8 percent now.

On a day like this, it is important that this nation remembers the largely forgotten labour force that is overseas. They may have gone for their personal advancement, but there is no escape from the hard truth that it is their combined earnings that kept the Sri Lankan economy alive during the dark days of the separatist insurgency. They are now contributing as much as Rs. 420 billion (US$ 4.1 billion) into the national economy annually. This figure is up from Rs. 330 billion in 2009. This money comes in foreign exchange so Sri Lanka can import your food, fuel and your elected representatives, the MPs, can have their duty-free cars. And our Business Editor has written about the plight these workers will face if the controversial Pensions Bill goes through in its present format.

Half of Sri Lankan workers abroad are women and 90 percent of these women are in West Asia. Sri Lanka's working population abroad is 1.5 million which effectively means that one in every 15-20 of our fellow citizens is working abroad -- and most of them, sending money back home.

With such staggering statistics the commensurate attention paid by the Government and its agencies pales into insignificance. It is not that the President, who was once a Minister of Labour himself does not know of the step-motherly treatment accorded to these migrant workers by the authorities in Colombo. Take for instance, the number of women officials in Sri Lankan missions in these countries - there is only one solitary female diplomatic officer serving in one of the missions in West Asia, the UAE (Abu Dhabi). The missions in Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (Riyadh and Jeddah), Qatar, UAE (Dubai), Egypt and Oman have no female foreign service officers to help three quarter of a million Sri Lankan women working in these countries.

On the other hand, an increasing number of female diplomatic officers in the Foreign Office opt out of serving in these countries and allow the men to look after these problems. Is it not time for the President to take a fresh look and review this? In the transfers that were done last month by the Minister, not a single female Foreign Service officer was recommended for a posting to West Asia. Not a single mission has a lady as ambassador when countries like Australia appointed a woman ambassador to Saudi Arabia even though it has no housemaids there merely to break the myth that females cannot work in diplomatic missions in these countries.

What is more, these missions have now been virtually sublet to politicians from a particular community with vested interest; many of whom are hand-in-glove with job agencies that in turn fund their political campaigns at home. When a migrant worker falls into trouble, the job agent gets in on the hotline to these politicians who get their work done using political clout to defend and protect the job agent, not the hapless worker. Some of them have covert partnerships with these job agents and it's one big racket. Often even serving ambassadors complain that they are pulled up "by the top" when they don't yield to unreasonable and illegal demands. The External Affairs Ministry's Consular Division that is designated to see to these matters is known as the ministry's 'Siberia' where errant officers, or those who try to be 'too smart' by checking the expense claims of favoured envoys, are sent for punishment. That is what happened to a Director General (Overseas Administration) recently. That's the importance placed in that division.

The Foreign Employment Bureau has no proper selection criteria in feeding these missions with their staff. Most of them are the pick of the Minister in charge or some politician's 'catcher, so much so that one mission found an ex-convict, a Minister's 'hit-man' sent there. Often ambassadors have to protect the female workers from these men, who work in conjunction with unscrupulous job agents.

Instead of 'fixing' problems on an ad-hoc basis on the requests of individual ministers and politicians, it is imperative that the President himself preside over a meeting at least once in every six months with the Ministers of Foreign Employment and External Affairs and the ambassadors of West Asian countries in Colombo to discuss the problems and attend to them. It is unfair to receive so much from these migrant workers and leave them in the lurch like this.

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Editorial Archive 2011 
09th January 2011 - Reciprocity to visitors
23rd January 2011 - Food crisis: The balanced diet
06th February 2011 - Independence 2011 and beyond
13th February 2011 - The message from Egypt
20th March 2011 - Be with Japan, be prepared
27th March 2011 - Without FIA, more sabhas will mean more crooks
03rd April 2011 - Sports: Heroes and villains
10th April 2011 - Move towards direct democracy
17th April 2011 - A report that seeks to open old wounds
24th April 2011 - Clinically shred war crimes allegations
01st May 2011 - May Day: Distress call from migrant workers
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