Unsung diplomats
Posted on July 5th, 2012

Dr.Tilak Fernando

Foreign Employment Ministry recently declared government’s various projects which are in the pipeline to cocoon Sri Lankan migrant workers against unfair treatment and protect them from all adversities.

Migrant workers leave their mother country to sweat out and toil in foreign lands to feed the hungry mouths at home. They in turn contribute largely towards Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves to help the country’s economy.

These workers need to be recognised and pay tributes not only after any alarming situations coming to pass, but from grass roots level they need assistance to improve their social, educational and economic standards. Simultaneously it becomes compulsory to educate all officials who are assigned to deal with those seeking foreign employment with requisite knowledge to assist in a positive manner.


A certain responsibility will also fall on the SriLankan aircrews when these workers fly the national airline to serve with a smile rather than with ‘toffee-nosed attitudes! After all, they are the ‘unsung’ diplomats of the country who bring an annual income of US $ 5 billion, which is equivalent to Sri Lanka’s export revenue.

Trade unions in foreign countries have signed extraordinary agreements with Sri Lankan counterparts on the welfare of migrant workers. Sometimes these agreements can give a rosy picture in theory, but such arrangements need to be scrutinised carefully by dotting the ‘I’ and cutting the ‘t’s to ensure that some hush-hush contracts signed by various foreign job agencies are beneficial to migrant workers or not.

Migrant workers contribute a major part of country’s foreign exchange earnings

Veterans in the battle for worker rights in labour have been constantly amplifying their concerns stating that “Foreign workers don’t enjoy any rights in the countries they work in, and are subject to all forms of harassment and wage issues”. They say that the agreements will help tackle various issues and problems faced by migrant workers, but among many issues laws are few.

A Jordanian Union agreement with Sri Lanka’s JobsNet to enter the recruitment business as a step to break the stranglehold on migrant workers by employment agencies has managed to change Laws in Jordan to respect the rights of workers but it appears that even though there are laws, implementation is lethargic.

Sri Lanka Manpower Welfare Association in Kuwait has been pleading for a balanced approach by the media on this issue highlighting the biggest problems as ‘worker ignorance’, their difficulty, or inexperience in handling modern household equipment. It is also observed that influenced by fellow workers some abandon the contracted employers and seek freelance work outside. In that direction the Association recommends a robust selective procedure to overcome these problems on the part of the housemaids.

Foreign recruitment agencies

There are numerous job agencies which have mushroomed today who keep on placing very convincing TV adverts to woo prospective applicants for foreign employment. Are all such agencies registered with the Government Employment Bureau/Ministry and are monitored rigidly to ascertain their integrity and reliability?

In this regard prospective job seekers need to be educated through TV and radio programmes about their rights and what to expect in their employment contracts. Similarly all agencies need to be instructed to retain full details of their clients on a database and such records forwarded to the Foreign Employment Bureau/Ministry to keep a tab on all foreign employment operations and activities.

The Government Employment Bureau/Ministry will have data of those applicants gone through official channels but what concerns is whether there is a foolproof monitoring system to detect unscrupulous agencies such as the one which sent under-aged Rizana Nafeek to Saudi Arabia, whose life hangs by a thread (since 2007) pending a death sentence. Also people have read about women who have had to return home penniless, being pregnant and after suffering all kinds of brutality such as embedded nails in their bodies.

Monitoring system

Introduction of a system where official (s) assigned by the ministry at the airport to sieve all foreign migrant workers to ensure that they are safeguarded under the stipulated government regulations on foreign employment and to collate information on anyone going through private agencies by retaining a copy of employment contracts, with details of agreed salary structure, conditions and nature of work, employer’s names and address, contact details, closest Sri Lankan Diplomatic Mission of the destination etc., in writing will aid the Sri Lankan authorities to work swiftly in an emergency situation.

There appears to be over 1.6 million Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East, Asia and Europe and more than 300,000 in Kuwait, over 75,000 in Jordan and 45,000 in Bahrain. It is vital to have a comprehensive database of all foreign workers abroad in a computer network linked to relevant Sri Lankan diplomatic missions abroad respectively.

An assignment of a diplomatic officer in each of those countries particularly to look into the welfare of migrant work force, will certainly upgrade the level of service offered to these groups officially. A routine phone call to local employers, say once a month, by such diplomatic officers as a public relations exercise will convey the message that Sri Lankan government is on their toes and is concerned about their citizens abroad.

In assisting migrant workers, especially women, the full responsibility will be thrust upon the authorities to ensure what they find are ‘safe houses’, in liaison with employment agencies at home and abroad, a programme which is said to be undertaken by the ministry at present.

A programme to put an end to all women seeking overseas employment in the near future may sound like trying to change the pillow for a head-ache! Instead of making it more difficult for poor families who seek greener pastures in foreign lands to brighten their lifestyle, a meticulous system of monitoring the welfare of migrant workers will be productive rather than appearing to be cutting the nose to spite the face. ILO conventions stipulate that ‘labourers will not be treated as a commodity’.

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One Response to “Unsung diplomats”

  1. AnuD Says:

    There is a report which One Sri Lanka Saudi Arabain Worker, a Buddhist, is on DEATH RAW for worshiping Buddha (in his room but in the employers home).

    Where is the human rights organizations, United Nations – UNHRC, Saudi Arabia is like a country employing SLAVES.

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