Migrant Labour in pandemic times | Daily News


Migrant Labour in pandemic times

How is the future of Sri Lankan migrant workers overseas affected by COVID-19? In a pandemic-girded world economy, will constrained economic activity reduce the international demand for labour? And, most importantly, if there is a reduction in migrant labour earnings, how will it affect Sri Lankan society and the economy?

The long term impact of the pandemic on the world economy and its effects on foreign employment conditions and opportunities is now being assessed by both public and private sector agencies. After all, for this country, foreign employment has turned out to be a major social phenomenon as well as a critically important national income-earner. Changes in the foreign jobs sector are already impacting the lives of families dependent on foreign remittances.

Since a pandemic is necessarily an international phenomenon, the Ministry of Foreign Relations has been at the forefront in managing the issues faced by over a million Sri Lankans employed or studying overseas. Over the past six months of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Foreign Ministry has been one of the several arms of government that has functioned 24/7 in responding to this massive humanitarian crisis.

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, top Ministry officials and experts, are actively monitoring the situation and evolving policy and strategy in this regard. Foreign Ministry Secretary Ravinatha Ariyasinghe’s recent address to the Organisation of Professional Associations has drawn attention to key aspects of the evolving situation with regard to foreign employment prospects and conditions of migrant workers.

On the one hand, there is the challenge of addressing shifts in international employment trends, especially the signs of increasing contraction of the global economy and the consequent fall in demand for foreign labour and the loss of foreign exchange earnings from overseas workers. There is also the challenge of accommodating returning migrant workers within the Sri Lankan economy, which is also contracting under pandemic pressures.

In recent decades Sri Lanka has been relieved of the social and political burden of the high unemployment that plagued our developing economy in the early post-colonial era. In the 1950s-1980s high unemployment contributed to social unrest and also to inter-community rivalry over economic opportunities.

The emergence of oil-rich economies in West Asia and their proximity to South Asia provided a golden opportunity for the poor in the region to seek livelihoods and higher incomes in those countries.

It greatly eased the employment problem and enhanced the incomes of some of the poorest, most disadvantaged social groups. Sri Lankans found opportunities overseas in both skilled and semi-skilled sectors. Young skilled workers went for jobs overseas that paid better than the same jobs here. Semi-skilled people, mostly rural women, bravely headed out to strange lands to escape both poverty as well as their gendered social fetters.

In 2019, migrant workers’ remittances comprised 25.5 % of foreign exchange earnings and contributed about 8% of Sri Lanka’s GDP.

Indeed, the diversion of labour overseas created serious labour shortages in some sectors, notably the construction industry – especially at a time when that industry was booming in tandem with national economic expansion.

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing all this with a suddenness which, itself, is part of the crisis – little time being allowed to assess, design and implement cushioning and recovery strategies.

The Foreign Secretary’s address to the OPA concisely sums up some of the challenges while suggesting possible coping strategies. Certainly, the pandemic has exposed less documented sections of our overseas workers, especially those who slipped out illegally or semi-legally and lived and worked in covert circumstances in their host countries. Many of the returnees from Italy comprised such elements. Because of their covert entry into jobs overseas, many of these jobs being in the informal sector, Sri Lankan authorities had no way of keeping track of such activity by citizens.

However, the larger picture is more about overseas job prospects, the expected downturn in foreign exchange earnings and the challenge to accommodate expatriate returnees in the national economy.

It is likely that employment demand overseas will evolve to absorb more skilled labour rather than semi-skilled because the contraction of host country economies will reduce foreign labour demand. Thus, the configuration of Sri Lanka’s migrant labour could change, perhaps shifting toward greatly reduced opportunities for semi-skilled workers. This may shut the door that had earlier opened to rural women.

At the same time, however, since the country’s economy has itself undergone radical changes in the process of modernisation, entirely new sectors have opened up in the rural areas while job avenues are increasingly available in urban areas for rural people. Traditional farming is now only one among many new livelihood avenues in the rural sector, thanks to a wide variety of commercial cultivation servicing the expanded processed food industry and also agro-exports.

The country’s economic planners – in both public and private sectors – must begin to pool their resources in analysing the problem and designing policies and strategies for the long term.

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