Foreign Employment to Boost Economic Revival | Daily News

Foreign Employment to Boost Economic Revival

‘Work Abroad’ programme - a bid to earn more remittances

With the Government rolling out a ‘Work Abroad’ programme in a bid to earn more remittances while pruning public sector expenditure during the meltdown, more and more Sri Lankan professionals have started leaving the country in droves. Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara speaks to the Daily News about the potentials in the global job market, the untapped destinations of foreign employment and the means of obtaining speedy passport renewals.


Q: Foreign employment is seen as one of the answers to Sri Lanka’s economic revival. What are the steps you have implemented to encourage this process?

A: Foreign employment has been one of the three major sources in which foreign currency flowed into the country. Tourism and export are the other two means in which Sri Lanka obtained foreign currency.

The role of foreign employment was not given much attention until the beginning of the prevailing dollar crisis. Just like any other area, foreign employment also lacks long-term policy orientation. Most of the strategically important matters related to foreign employment have not been dealt with on time. Sri Lanka is recognized as a country which sends low-skilled labour to the Gulf region. I have taken both short-term, long-term and strategically important decisions as follows.

From day one in the office, I started bi-lateral discussions with countries where we have G-to-G agreements for migrant workers to ensure they are properly implemented for mutual benefits. It is unfortunate that the majority of such agreements were not properly utilized for the benefit of the country due to a lack of political leadership, and bureaucracy. Israel, Italy, Malaysia, and Korea are some such examples.

Labour and Foreign Employment Minister
Manusha Nanayakkara

There was a lot of gender-based discrimination in certain policy decisions taken earlier that was highlighted by multiple stakeholders here and abroad. Accordingly, I have presented two Cabinet papers to relax the age restrictions and to match the age restrictions of the destination countries while relaxing the family background (FBR) report to create a level playing field for men and women. Not only FBR has restricted genuine migrant workers who aspire to work abroad but also it has led to lots of malpractices and corruption. People also seek illegal ways to travel abroad. I intend to further relax FBR once we create a conducive environment for the children of migrant workers.

Due to the dire need for foreign remittance and the sudden drop in remittance sent through legal channels, it was necessary to recognize the contribution done by Sri Lankans living abroad. As a result, I presented a financial and non-financial incentive scheme to promote remittance through legal channels. Offering a license to import an electric vehicle was one such incentive while increasing duty-free allowance based on money remitted rather than the time spent abroad.

I also have got the Cabinet approval to incorporate the Japanese language into the school curriculum from primary classes. We have failed to secure and capitalize on the job opportunities that are available for migrant workers in Japan mainly due to language requirements. Japan will need over 6.4 million migrant workers by 2040 and the benefits of the decision, therefore, are long-term.

I am in the process of amending the foreign employment act with a futuristic perspective to facilitate the changes in the foreign employment landscape. This will empower the role of the Foreign Employment Bureau as a regulator. I will also set up a separate unit called ‘Overseas Sri Lankan’ to serve Sri Lankans living abroad and to recognize their contribution to our economy. Setting up district-level hostel facilities for the children of migrant workers and exclusive housing schemes for overseas Sri Lankan are also being discussed at the moment to encourage and recognize foreign employment.

I recently got Cabinet approval to fill the vacancies of the approved cardre of the labour sections of foreign missions that are self-sufficient. The overseas cardre was reduced mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the foreign currency crisis we are facing. This would help us secure more job opportunities while servicing the migrant workers overseas.

I have directed my officials to focus on new market development in terms of new destination countries where we have not been active traditionally. Certain European countries such as Romania, Poland, and Serbia offer substantial growth opportunities in foreign employment.

Q: Last year State employees were allowed to seek foreign employment by granting them no pay leave without it affecting their pension and seniority level. Does the offer still stand? What other concessions do they get?

A: Yes, it still exists. The major concern that every public sector employee has is about pension and seniority. Therefore, the Government has decided to protect their rights while allowing them to work overseas. They can find a job here in the private sector or go for higher studies abroad through scholarships or self-funded schemes too.

At the moment we have over 106,000 public workers registered with us expressing their interest in foreign employment. We are in the process of developing a web-based platform to bring multiple stakeholders together to facilitate this smoothly. Without a proper understanding of the skills required for foreign employment opportunities and the current competencies of the applicants, this initiative of the Government would not be a success. The proposed system would perform a skill assessment of each candidate, and link them with potential employers and foreign employment agencies while guiding them to obtain and upgrade necessary technical competencies through various private and public sector institutes. A few leading Sri Lankan-based software companies have offered their assistance in developing this system as a crowd-sourcing project.

There are over 1.7 million public sector employees and we are about 40 percent overstaffed. This is a huge burden to the economy. The Government has proposed this project to right-size the public sector.

Q: The abuse of Sri Lankan migrant workers has been an ongoing problem throughout the years. How do you hope to tackle this issue?

A: This is mainly among those who go as domestic workers due to various reasons. As I mentioned earlier, this is a result of age restrictions. Hence under age females used to travel illegally to seek employment abroad. Also, we have seen a surge in female workers travelling on visit visas not declaring the real purpose of travelling and subsequently converting their visas into work permits. These individuals have been victims of human trafficking and abuse. Those who register with the Bureau by fulfilling the prerequisite are not vulnerable as their whereabouts are known.

Those who lack training, orientation, and exposure among these job aspirants have fallen into these situations. We are in the process of offering advanced housekeeping and caregiving training that is on par with international vocational qualifications. Also, we have begun an awareness campaign to educate those who aspire to work abroad about human trafficking. We have rolled out a programme in collaboration with the Immigration Department, Sri Lanka Police, and CID to bring down the organised groups that are targeting vulnerable individuals.

The labour sections of our foreign missions also work closely with the law enforcement agencies of those countries to see that justice is served. Recently a court in Kuwait granted over 20 million rupees compensation for a female worker who was abused. Fighting these abuses is a collective effort by multiple stakeholders and we are working tirelessly to prevent such abuses in the first place while empowering workers to know and exercise their rights.

Q: Which countries hold the most potential for Sri Lankans for foreign employment and which job categories are in demand most? How much salary scale can they expect?

A: Jobs in the care economy have the highest potential at the moment. It offers a wide variety of jobs such as social care, elderly care, disability care, caregiver, domestic nurses, nursemaid, nursing aides, and medical nurses. These are jobs mainly available in developed countries including the UK, USA, Germany, Singapore, and Japan. Countries such as Israel and Gulf countries also offer a significant amount of opportunities. At the moment there are over 27,000 job orders secured by private sector agencies. Unfortunately they struggle to find qualified candidates mainly due to language barriers. The care sector offers the most lucrative salaries ranging from Rs. 250,000 to over one million in certain countries.

Q: Some time back there were talks of certain countries demanding foreign employees or students be vaccinated with a certain brand of Coronavirus vaccine.

A: This was the case soon after the vaccine was introduced. But now with the learning curve, most of the vaccines have improved while available choices are wide. As of now, there is no such restriction demanding a specific brand.

Q: A couple of years back many migrant workers returned to Sri Lanka to safeguard themselves and their families from Coronavirus. Now that the country needs foreign currency, workers have to find foreign employment again amid new variants of Coronavirus and Monkeypox. Have a majority of countries opened up to employ Sri Lankans and what are the demands they need to fulfill before seeking foreign employment?

A: Almost every country now has opened its borders to migrant workers. Most of the countries that had restrictions in place now face severe labour shortages in the areas of construction, tourism, healthcare, and manufacturing. This has resulted in a surge in demand for migrant workers. While vaccination is a must and most of the country-specific rules and regulations remain unchanged.

Q: Are one-day services for passport issuing ongoing? What are the other challenges that immigrants face when getting their passport or visa finalized today and what are the solutions you have proposed?

A: As a result of the prevailing economic crisis and uncertainty, a new segment of local job seekers started looking for foreign employment resulting in an unusual demand for passports. This has been a challenge while carrying out day-to-today functions such as passport renewal. The current demand is way beyond the designed capacity of the Immigration Department and there is a limitation by default unless the issuance of passports is decentralized. Since the demand is not sustainable such decentralization will not be an effective investment in the long term.

However, I have had several discussions with the immigration controller to bring the service level to an acceptable level. Accordingly, a dedicated new counter is now open for migrant workers who have secured a job offer or contract. Also, a special arrangement is made for foreign employment agencies to process passports in the event of bulk job orders.

Q: What is your message to Sri Lankans who are trying to seek foreign employment today?

A: The majority of migrant employees are products of the free education in the country. We all have an obligation towards the country regardless of where we are employed. Where we work is a choice everyone can make independently and no one can force you to seek foreign employment simply because the country is in a bad shape.

I have seen some people trying to take undue political advantages out of this situation claiming that the Government is trying to export the labour force of the country for their benefit. Sri Lankan has been predominantly a welfare state since its Independence which has created an overdependence on the State while leading to a political culture that we experience today. It is time we change now and take responsibility for our own lives by working and it applies to me as well. The job of the State is to be a regulator while Governments change and introduce new policies compatible with their political ideology and will. I will, without fear, introduce new policies that are modern to facilitate anyone aspiring to work abroad. Those who seek foreign employment have to respect the rule of law of the destination country while upholding the value system of Sri Lanka and demonstrating strong work ethics. Finally, none of these will be in favour of the country unless earnings are transmitted through legal channels that will have a far more positive impact across the country.


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