On Sunday, a social media clip showed a poultry farmer drawing a curtain in a yard outside and as he did so, hundreds of chickens scrambled out, some flying in anxiety to get out of probably being cooped up for a long spell. A caption on the clip says….….“This is what will happen on Monday [...]

Business Times

Rescuing migrant workers


On Sunday, a social media clip showed a poultry farmer drawing a curtain in a yard outside and as he did so, hundreds of chickens scrambled out, some flying in anxiety to get out of probably being cooped up for a long spell. A caption on the clip says….….“This is what will happen on Monday (meaning when Colombo is open for work and other economic activity)….”

However, there wasn’t a rush to get to work on Monday, contrary to expectations while a near-normal situation had prevailed by around Wednesday. A shortage of buses also meant many people had to return home unable to get to their workplaces.

As I contemplated on these developments, a commotion at the gate drew my attention. Kussi Amma Sera, wearing a face-mask, was arguing with a vegetable vendor. “Me elavalu aluth ne (These vegetables are not fresh),” she said. “Velanda-polen apata meva thama labenne (This is what we get from the market),” said the helpless vendor.

“Thamath oya adika milak aya karanawada (Are you still charging high prices)?” asked Serapina who along with Mabel Rasthiyadu had joined Kussi Amma Sera. “Mata thiyenne sulu labhayak witharai (I am only making a small profit),” said the vendor in despair.

As I watched the scene at the gate, the telephone rang. It was ‘human resources’ pundit H.R. Perera, popularly known as HR, on the line.

“How… how are you,” he asked, adding: “Are you back at work?”

“Yes… most of us have returned and it’s nice to be back though it’s a bit of a struggle adjusting to an office environment after spending nearly two months under the work-from-home regimen,” I said.

“In the meantime, how is the situation in the Middle East for our workers,” he asked. “Very traumatic. Some may lose their jobs, while others are struggling to return amidst pay-cuts, accommodation constraints and fears of getting infected with the virus,” I said.

We went on to discuss the many concerns of migrant workers in addition to other COVID-19 developments in Sri Lanka.

For the record, there are more than 1.8 million Sri Lankan migrant workers overseas, mostly in the Gulf states which are now struggling through their own crises of declining oil revenues and cutting back on construction projects etc., as the economic recession begins to bite.

Many of these workers have either lost their jobs or have been imposed severe pay-cuts. Many are desperate to return to Sri Lanka but cannot do so due to the absence of flights and closure of airports.

According to reports from there, the pandemic has created chaos in the West Asian labour markets with migrants claiming that their employment contracts have been violated by employers. A bigger fear is that of contracting the coronavirus as many, particularly construction workers, live in congested and often overcrowded accommodation.

To Sri Lanka, the situation in the Gulf is worrying particularly since remittances from Sri Lankan migrant workers are the largest single contributor to foreign exchange reserves. With apparel exports, the second largest foreign exchange contributor, also in trouble, the government has been struggling to steady the reserves and in desperation is allowing ‘no questions asked’ foreign currency deposits from Sri Lankan expatriates and other investors. No questions would be asked even if ‘black or undeclared money’ is invested in Sri Lankan banks.

Eyebrows have been raised over this decision particularly since the Central Bank this week announced that Sri Lanka has succeeded in being removed from the ‘grey list’ of countries that support terror funding and money laundering activities. It remains to be seen whether Sri Lanka would get back on this list of dubious countries if unaccounted-for dollars flow into the country and beef up foreign exchange reserves. This is, however, not the first time Sri Lanka has thrown caution to the wind and invited foreign investment under a ‘no questions asked’ policy, as part of desperate measures to boost foreign exchange reserves.

This is also not the only decision that has raised questions. The other is the carte blanche move to restrict non-essential imports. While on one hand it succeeds in reducing Sri Lanka’s usual requirement of foreign exchange, it drastically reduces the revenue from import taxes, overall reducing tax revenue – already burdened by reduced economic activity – and resulting in a struggle by the government to pay the salaries of public servants and other fixed costs including local and foreign debt.

The virtual exhaustion of funds under the earlier Vote on Account (which ends in end-May) means another struggle to get funds from the Consolidated Fund amidst a tussle between the government and the opposition on the legality of this move. At the same time, some economists have said the Consolidated Fund doesn’t have any money in it!

Reverting to the discussion I had with HR, a database of Sri Lankans working abroad and who are in difficulty reached 59,419 registrations as at mid-April, half of them from the West Asian region.

While the government has been focusing on Sri Lankan students and others stranded abroad and organising repatriation flights via SriLankan Airlines, it is reported that the next step of the repatriation process is bringing back Sri Lankan workers who want to return from West Asia. It is also reported that the first set of workers to be repatriated would be from Kuwait, Dubai and the Maldives.

Kuwait, in addition to the COVID-19 crisis, has offered an amnesty to undocumented workers, which is another reason why Sri Lankan authorities are working on some repatriation flights from there. The government has also requested all undocumented Sri Lankan workers – those who don’t have proper work visas and are deemed illegals – to register with the local Sri Lankan mission in an effort to provide them the same services as legal workers.

In a recent TV interview, Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha has said that migrant workers who still have jobs should seriously consider whether they want to come back or not. “Somebody who is in a job whether in the Middle East or any country, blue collar or white collar, at this point when you come back, you might not be able to return to that job because those countries are also cutting back and everybody is scaling down, and so is the case in Sri Lanka. But if you don’t have a job already, then I can see the logic, but I think it is important that people out there understand that when you come back to Sri Lanka too finding jobs won’t be easy,” he has said.

As I wind up my column, missing was my second cup of tea. I could hear the trio still in conversation at the gate conveniently forgetting my cup of tea, while happily sipping theirs!

While attention is being concentrated on the impact on garment exports and tourism with many webinars being held to discuss the crisis and recovery of these two key sectors, not enough attention other than the ministry is being focused on Sri Lankan migrant workers, which is something that needs to be rectified.

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