By Andrew Samuel  As we celebrate international migrant’s day (IMD) today, it is appropriate to reflect on the 1.8 million migrant workers who have for the longest time contributed to the national coffers by way of wage remittances. The significance of this day is that it originated with some Asian migrants and civil society organisations [...]

Sunday Times 2

International migrant’s day and Sri Lanka


By Andrew Samuel 

As we celebrate international migrant’s day (IMD) today, it is appropriate to reflect on the 1.8 million migrant workers who have for the longest time contributed to the national coffers by way of wage remittances. The significance of this day is that it originated with some Asian migrants and civil society organisations celebrating the date on which the UN adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Migrant Workers and their Families.
As global markets expanded through trade and countries developed their physical infrastructure, people moved from their countries of origin to countries of destination seeking greener pastures. People continue to move due to economic hardships. They continue to move because they cannot trust their political leaders for economic prosperity. They migrate because of conflicts and wars in their countries. They also migrate because of natural calamities in their home countries.

Domestic workers are still the highest single category of workers seeking employment overseas.

Globally it is estimated that about 250 million people have moved from their home countries and are living in foreign countries for their economic and social progress. Forty nine percent of this enormous population are women. According to the UN International Migration Report 2015, of the 20 countries that host the most number of migrants, Saudi Arabia is in 3rd place and UAE is in 5th place. Of this total about 150 million people are migrant workers. Of this foreign labour population about 11-12 million are migrant domestic workers.

In 2014 migrants from the developing countries sent home US$436 billion in remittances. Worker remittances during this same period for Sri Lanka were US$7 billion and in 2015 it was US$6,98 billion. Some economists believe that labour migration is one way that can eradicate poverty in countries. Whilst there is merit to such a theory, there is also widespread belief that migration has caused greater harm to individuals and communities for the sheer lack of policies and rights protection for such persons. The very fact that labour exploitation, modern slavery, labour trafficking and debt bondage are by-products of migration is reason enough to rethink strategies of the discourse at the national, bilateral, regional, and multilateral levels.

Also, in more recent times migration has had a new set of identities and meanings not only from the labour migration platform but to recognize asylum seekers and refugees who fall in to the broader category of migrants. It is therefore very likely that some parts of the world will celebrate this day remembering the lives that were lost in attempting to reach safer places from conflict situations.

Some features of the Sri Lankan labour migration discourse
Since and before the establishment of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) Sri Lanka has been known to export domestic workers to the Gulf region. Since then this extremely lucrative export has had a profound effect on the economy of Sri Lanka. It was only in recent years that the trend shifted in more men migrating for employment.

Despite over 30 years of labour export a few things have not changed such as the most lucrative region being the Gulf states, domestic workers are still the highest single category of workers seeking employment overseas and low and semiskilled workers dominate the skills set category distribution and the fact that freewheeling sub agents operate without regulation. What has also not changed is the conciliation work of the SLBFE has not been fully decentralised to the regions yet.

Many changes have been introduced in the process, some as regulatory changes and some others through ministry circulars that keep changing from time to time. Some of them are the implementation of a “family background report imposed on women migrants, age restrictions and family status on women migrants. These are clear violations of mobility that restricts women in gaining economic wellbeing. It is also a violation of international conventions and rights. Amendments to the SLBFE Act have been done and are awaiting parliament approval for implementation. Civil society does not have much knowledge of these amendments. The SLBFE has withdrawn from being party to signing the domestic worker employment contract leaving room for private agents to interpret the contract that could have other implications. Minimum wage thresholds have also been introduced.

The pre-departure training for domestic workers has increased to 40 days from 21 days. Though the government has invested in pre-departure training facilities for prospective migrant domestic workers and conform its training to a NVQ3 level, the results have not shown any significant improvement in alleviating the domestic worker to new professional service standards. The Gulf countries don’t want to recognise such specialties. They think these services should be part of the domestic work job profile.

Domestic work is not a recognised form of work in destination countries and is not recognised in their labour laws. Domestic workers are vulnerable to multiple forms of abuse like verbal abuse, mental and psychological abuse, physical and sexual abuse. Domestic workers in the Gulf states are live-in maids. They must work all seven days of the week. They are not given a paid day off. They have no access to the outside world. This makes them vulnerable to this abuse and in most instances, they go unrecorded.

Because of this non recognition factor, employers and private recruiting agents take advantage of this worker category. There are many complaints recorded of contract violations such as non payment of wages, delayed wage payments, wage deductions, over work, no proper rest, having to work outside the contract stipulation, having to work in multiple houses, deprivation of sleep and food.

There are other severe restrictions being imposed in the destination countries. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the recruitment cost to recruit a domestic worker is high as there are many stakeholders profiting from this cost. This has resulted in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia imposing a penalty of 10,000 Riyals or Rs.400,000 on the domestic worker if she does not fulfill the standard contract period of two years. This is one of the most unfair and unreasonable conditions introduced by a destination country.

The other serious concern is the payment made to the domestic worker by the private recruiting agent at the predeparture stage for accepting employment as a salary advance. This shows how much profit is made from a single recruitment by agents. It is a way of committing a worker in to a debt trap even before the worker takes up employment.

Concerns in Saudi Arabia
As much as 32% of Saudi Arabia’s population are expat workers most of whom are from South Asia. Saudi Arabia relies on foreign labour to run its economy and build its physical infrastructure. Many developing countries in South Asia, Africa, and Southeast Asia supply labour on contract to the Kingdom.
The crash in crude oil prices in the world market is hurting the big supplier countries in the Gulf. The most affected is Saudi Arabia as it relies on as much as 80% of its income on oil revenue. With the global market collapse in oil prices the Kingdom posted a US$98 billion budget deficit in 2015. Saudi Arabia is a very important country for Sri Lanka because of the large number of Sri Lankans working there. In 2014 alone Sri Lanka supplied over 80,000 workers and in 2015, Sri Lanka sent almost 75,000 workers.

Large construction and infrastructure projects have been contracted out to both local and foreign companies. As the economy continues to slowdown the big contractors are finding it difficult to pay their workers. Some are claiming that their clients have not settled their bills and that has resulted in them not being able to settle worker salaries.

There are thousands of foreign workers from the region stranded in Saudi Arabia awaiting back payments of salary for the work they have carried out. Most of these workers have debt to clear at home. They are unable to remit money home for the welfare of their families and to pay the debt instalments. Back in the workplace the workers are living without proper meals. The crisis has severely affected the worker’s families who have relied on remittances for their survival. This has had a domino effect to even the sending country economies especially to those economies that rely mostly on foreign remittances such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.

We must acknowledge the contributions that temporary migration has brought to our countries from contract labour by way of remittances. We must acknowledge that worker remittances have and continue to save the fragile economies of our countries. We must acknowledge the enormous sacrifices these workers make in leaving their families behind to earn a decent wage for a decent living. We must acknowledge that these migrant workers often have very little support for redress from both the countries of origin and destination. We must acknowledge the appalling working and living conditions that some migrant workers have. We must acknowledge the many contractual violations that migrant workers face during their contractual period. We must acknowledge that migrant workers are also tricked and trafficked in to conditions that they never bargained for. We must acknowledge that the Kafala recruitment system continues to prevail in the Gulf states to the disadvantage of migrant workers. We must acknowledge the severe punishments imposed on workers through the sharia law in the Gulf states.

Governments of origin and destination countries must recognise and respect the UN legal instrument, the “1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrants and Members of Their Families”. It is therefore the responsibility of the origin country governments to put pressure on labour receiving countries to adhere and conform to international labour laws and practices in respecting foreign workers and their lives and treating them with dignity.

It is the responsibility of origin country governments to negotiate safe migration from a bilateral and multilateral point of view and not only consider increases to remittances. It is the responsibility of origin country governments to ensure that the workers they send, no matter what category they belong to, are protected and that their governments will respond to their needs when in a crisis.

It is the responsibility of the origin country governments to make sure a rights framework is introduced in all negotiations with relevant stakeholders including the private recruitment industry for the protection and wellbeing of migrant workers.

Today, there are many important multilateral dialogues on migration. Relevant to the labour migration platform are the (Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD), Abu Dhabi Dialogue (ADD), the Colombo Process (CP) and the Global Consultation on Migrant Health (GCMH). Governments should be engaged in these processes and take responsibility for their actions and decisions.

(The writer can be contacted at

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.