Foreign employment realm: Sri Lanka earned Rs. 1.5 billion in
2003 as foreign exchange earnings from Sri Lankans employed overseas.
Foreign Employment is one of the three highest foreign exchange earners
that fills the Treasury, replacing the age old and traditional foreign
exchange earners Tea, Coconut and Rubber.
Sri Lanka's economy was heavily dependent on the three traditional
exports, Tea, Coconut and Rubber until 1970s which saw a fraction of
society going overseas looking for greener pastures without the `open
blessing' of the State. Emerging times of the decades that followed also
saw a great demand for Sri Lankan labour but Sri Lanka was not very
receptive in the early years of the 1970 decade.
At the time the Foreign Employment subject was handled by Labour
Ministry through the arm of Employment Exchange. In 1977, the Foreign
Employment Division was established under the Labour Department and thus
paved the way to acknowledge the untapped vast potential in the foreign
With the Open Economy coming into operation the `playing field' was
left wide open. The gates that were kept closed for long years under
heavy guard were open in full swing. A sea of people specially women
folk were seen crossing the `seven seas' to reach greener pastures. The
Mass Exodus in a way was a blessing for an emerging economy to thrive
and strengthen the coffers.
The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), which took over
the responsibility of issuing licenses to conduct business in an
organised manner, regulate operations of the licensed Foreign Employment
Agents; ensure safety, welfare of the Sri Lankans employed overseas was
established as a Public Corporation by Act No.22 of 1985.
The new Act which paved the way to create SLBFE gave powers to the
Minister in charge to appoint 11 directors to this Board. The Board thus
established helped expand the trade in migrant workers and the expansion
saw a recognisable proportion.
We also saw the emergence of the Association of Licensed Foreign
Employment Agencies (ALFEA), the authentic body that represents the
interests of the recruiting bodies.
The Association became a very important component and Licensed job
agents had to be members of that Association when they go for a renewal
of their agencies.
Thus today there are around 700 licensed job agents who hold ALFEA
Membership which plays a crucial role in providing job opportunities.
With the passage of time and the added experience gathered in the new
venture the Foreign Employment arm of the Labour Ministry had to act to
ensure welfare measures, medical facilities, health insurance and loans
without interest from banks, facilities at the Bandaranaike
International Airport at the Arrivals and Departures, appoint welfare
officers at the foreign embassies in the respective countries to closely
monitor the activities of Job agencies and take appropriate action to
deal with issues pertaining migrant workers.
The Sri Lankans who courageously went overseas, specially the
womenfolk, who comprise over 70 per cent of the total migrant workers
found employment as domestic aides in the Middle East Countries, UAE,
Dubai and Kuwait.
Men found employment in countries such as Singapore, Maldives, Hong
Kong, Cyprus and lately, Korea, Italy and Malaysia in various fields.
Many face problems due to the language barrier. Lack of good
education, lack the knowledge of the language spoken, not being
accustomed to traditional and cultural values of the country and as a
result they failed to appreciate the traditions and values of the
countries they went to serve in.
For these reasons many had to suffer and the Government also realised
by experience that the country needed to send people with some basic
knowledge of language, values and skills. They needed training to demand
or bargain for a higher and more dignified placement than a position of
a housemaid. But many things mentioned here are yet to turn to reality.
With the change of Governments and the respective Labour Ministers
under whose wing the Foreign Employment subject came, many different
initiatives were taken. The ALFEA which played an important role has
faded away and from the 700 Agents around 300 are only active and others
suddenly prop up and then go down unheard.
The Bureau which was established for an administrative purpose moved
into job recruitment via a company and according to some that agency was
meant only to recruit workers for Korea and lately to Malaysia.
Media reported from time to time that those who had gone to Korea and
Malaysia keep on coming back as the terms and conditions under which
they had gone have been violated by the respective employers. They also
were critical of the lethargic attitude of the officers placed in the
Sri Lanka embassies when they are informed of the difficulties the
migrant workers face.
There was a time where the job agents were active. These job agents
despite their many shortcomings did provide an opportunity to many
thousands of men and women to go overseas to earn a better living. But
there seems to be something lacking today and there is something wrong
somewhere. But the country needs much more foreign exchange than over
the past few decades.
The only hope is more job opportunities overseas and the best people
to handle the situation is the job agents. Reward them for the good work
and punish them if they violate the law or harass the job seekers in one
form or the other. Finding more employment overseas will also help to
reduce unemployment in the country.
There were also instances of rude treatment meted out to the migrant
workers and some had come back in a worse state. Some lost their lives
and others limbs. The sad stories of those who had to suffer were
highlighted in the media and remained at that.
There were also stories of families getting separated and vice
entering these families destroying the much cherished customs and
cultures as a result of breadwinners migrating for work.
This is something to ponder. What is necessary is to have a special
arm to monitor, control and at the same time harp on them that they
needed to preserve their identity, wherever they may be. The country has
hopes in Athauda Seneviratne, the new Minister and eagerly awaits the
dawn of a new era under him.
By way of suggestion `Gamaya' wishes to say that it would be of great
help to have an `Advisory Body' consisting of former chairmen and
experienced job agents without blemish. It is also necessary to give
more opportunities to job agents who have done veritable service to the
country and get them involved more and more for a better tomorrow.