The good news is that worker remittances is the silver lining, the only one, in the economy in 2020 and this despite the economic slowdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bad news, however, is that Sri Lankan authorities appear to have a devil-may-care attitude towards migrant workers stranded in West Asia. A video from [...]

Business Times

Remittances great, but workers suffer


The good news is that worker remittances is the silver lining, the only one, in the economy in 2020 and this despite the economic slowdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bad news, however, is that Sri Lankan authorities appear to have a devil-may-care attitude towards migrant workers stranded in West Asia.

A video from Kuwait (there are many circulating about the plight of our workers overseas) shows workers in the street, some even begging. Two women were asked to sit outside the embassy wall and not allowed in by embassy staff. Eventually these women, sitting outside the embassy, were helped by a friendly Sri Lankan who gave them accommodation and food at her place of work.

It is said to cost between Rs. 300,000 to Rs. 400,000 which includes air fares and quarantine facilities to return to Sri Lanka. According to JVP MP Harini Amarasuriya (quoted in the video), there is no proper plan by the government, despite claims, to bring back these workers. No reliable information is also available on the plight of these workers, both females and males, how many have arrived and how many are able and unable to pay this large fee to return.

As I reflected on the desperation of Sri Lankan workers overseas, there was a commotion at the gate. Aldoris, the ‘choon paan karaya’, had arrived with his tuk-tuk filled with breakfast goodies on this Thursday morning and as usual the trio was bargaining with him, often an excuse to pull his leg!

“Aiyo, aei me kimbula bunis mechchara ganan (Aiyo, why are kimbula buns so expensive),” exclaimed Mabel Rasthiyadu. Aldoris, responding with a painful expression, changed the topic saying: “Mage akka, lankawata ava meda peradigin, godak apahasu-tha walata passe. Mata hari santhoshai (My sister returned to Sri Lanka from West Asia after suffering for a few months. I am glad she returned).”

“Ow, matath aheli thiyenawa egollanta hari prashna kiyala, kema, inna than gana. Egollanta salli nehellu aapahu enna ticket-eka ganna (Yes, I heard that many of them are facing serious problems of food, accommodation and no money to pay for air fares),” noted Serapina. “Api,akkata salli ariya, eyata salli thibune nethi hinda (We had to send the money for her to return, as she didn’t have enough),” replied Aldoris.

“Meka hari avasanavanthai, mokada egollo thamai ape aarthikaya balaganne. Api egollanta gowravayen salakanna avashyayi (This is very unfortunate because our workers are the virtual breadwinners of the economy and should be treated with utmost respect),” said Kussi Amma Sera.

According to the latest figures released by the Central Bank, workers’ remittances in 2020 rose by 5.8 per cent to US$7,104 million from $6,717 million in 2019. In December 2020, it was up at $813 million compared to $665 million in the same month in 2019. This was the only positive news in the economy last year.

While workers poured back their earnings to Sri Lanka, which largely helped as a buffer against dwindling foreign reserves, export earnings – mainly due to the pandemic impact on production and waning export markets where supply was more than demand – fell to $10 billion in 2020 compared to $12 billion in 2019. However, given the crisis in 2020, the export earnings’ figure was commendable.

Import costs came down by 19.5 per cent to $16 billion last year from $20 billion in 2019, due to the import ban on several items. Tourism earnings fell, as expected with the airport closed for most of the year to international visitors, by 74 per cent to $957 million from $4 billion in 2019.

At the end of the year, official foreign reserves – helped by worker remittances – stood at $5.7 billion. During 2020, the Sri Lankan rupee depreciated by 2.6 per cent in 2020 and is now trading at around 197 rupees per 1$.

On the topic of exports, the Central Bank (CB) dismissed concerns by exporters over the move to insist that 25 per cent of export earnings should be converted to rupees to bolster flagging foreign exchange reserves. Apparel exporters said most of them were unaffected by the move as they convert even more than 25 per cent of their earnings to pay local salaries and for other overheads.

“Exporters (also) convert a substantial portion of their foreign exchange earnings to Sri Lanka rupees to meet their domestic payment obligations. Therefore, the requirement to repatriate foreign exchange earnings to Sri Lanka and to convert 25 per cent of these earnings into Sri Lanka rupees does not exert excessive pressure on exporters,” the CB said in a statement.

At this moment, I turned away from the office window while listening to the conversation by the trio with Aldoris, to answer a call. It was ‘reconditioned’ Ranjith, a know-all in the second-hand car market, I hadn’t spoken to in a long time.

“Hello…hello, how is the second hand-car market doing? Trying times indeed?” I asked.

“Yes…yes, our industry has suffered but I heard that the government is reviewing the ban on car imports in December and I hope the ban is lifted. However, I called you on another matter,” he said.

“What is it?” I asked. “Well some people from my village were seeking advice on how to bring back their relatives who are stuck in West Asia without jobs, food and accommodation. How do they get back?” he asked.

‘The best bet is the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment for advice and guidance. However, the bureau has come under criticism as workers don’t have enough money to pay for airfares and quarantine facilities. There is a serious problem here. On one side, the earlier advice was for the workers to cough out the cost, while later the government seems to be saying that the state will fund these costs. The situation seems unclear,” I said.

“Is there another source to get this information?” he asked.

“Well, you could also try contacting many local community groups which work on migrant worker issues, for some helpful advice,” I said, eliciting a ‘thank you’ from him before ending the conversation.

While coming to the end of this column, Kussi Amma Sera walked into the room with my second cup of tea, saying: “Mama danne ne aei ape pita-rata weda karana kattiyata narakata salakanne aei kiyala (I don’t know why our migrant workers are treated so badly).” I acknowledged her view and said she was spot on.

For a sector that is the saviour of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange, migrant workers get a raw deal. For example, apparel sector workers were paid a minimum salary during the pandemic even if they were unable to come to work, while migrant workers are left with nothing other than hosannas sung by politicians and officials as a vital economic source!

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