The expatriate lifeline | Sunday Observer

The expatriate lifeline

30 April, 2023

Expatriate workers are the mainstay of the Sri Lankan economy. Pre-pandemic, they remitted around US$ 6 billion per year. However, many of them lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic’s impact on the global economy and returned home. Then during the initial stages of the economic crisis and the Aragalaya, there was a call not to remit money to Sri Lanka through official channels. This led to a drastic reduction in expatriate remittances.

However, with the political changes that took place in July 2022 and the gradual return of normality, expatriates are again sending funds to their families through official banking channels. There has been a steady increase in expat remittances through legal channels over the past four months – US$ 437 million in January 2023, US$ 407 million in February (only 28 days) and US$ 560 million in March. If this trend continues, Sri Lanka will be on track to earn over US$ 5 billion from expat remittances. This certainly is a lifeline for the moribund economy.

In these spaces, we have always called on the Government to grant more concessions and facilities for these expatriate workers, who have been dubbed Rata Wiruwo (Overseas Heroes) by a previous Foreign Employment Minister. Manusha Nanayakkara, the current Minister in charge of this important subject, has taken several far-reaching decisions for the benefit of this segment of Lankan workers.

Accordingly, it was announced on Friday that duty-free allowances for expatriate workers given at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) will be increased from May 1, 2023. Expatriate workers who send money to Sri Lanka legally through the banking network are eligible to receive an increased duty-free allowance. The amount of money sent through the banking network since May 1 last year will be taken into account, and this concession will be given under five categories.

Workers who have remitted between US$ 2,400-4,799 will get an additional duty free allowance of US$ 600 and those who have remitted between US$ 4,800 - US$ 7,199 will get an additional allowance of US$ 960. Expat workers who have sent between US$7,200 – US$ 11,999 will receive an additional duty free allowance of US$ 1,440.

Expatriate workers who have remitted between US$12,000 – US$ 23,999 would get a US$ 2,400 additional allowance and workers who have sent US$ 24,000 or more can get an additional US$ 4,800 allowance. This will enable them to buy household appliances at duty free prices at the BIA. With a duty free complex coming up at the Port City this year, they could purchase goods at leisure, instead of rushing through the duty free shops on arrival at the BIA.

Likewise, the first batch of cars imported through the concessionary permits for electric vehicles granted to expatriate workers, was recently inspected by Minister Nanayakkara. The time period granted for the import of electric vehicles (cars and motorcycles) by Sri Lankan migrant workers depending on their remittances will be extended until August 2023, the Minister said at this event.

A mechanism will also be introduced to give electric vehicle import licences to other persons who bring dollars to the country on a private basis. In fact, we have suggested in this column that only electric vehicles should be allowed when car imports resume next year.

Also, Cabinet approval has been received to introduce a low interest loan system for expatriate workers last week. Accordingly, the workers can get loan facilities up to Rs.2 million. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has also suggested to the Cabinet that a comprehensive program should be implemented for the workers who have permanently returned to this country after working abroad.

These are all positive moves that will be appreciated by Sri Lankans working abroad. We believe that similar concessions should be granted to Sri Lankans domiciled abroad (in countries such as Australia and Canada) who regularly send funds to their families back home. In India, such persons are recognised as Non Resident Indians (NRIs), given an ID card and many concessions and incentives.

A similar move should be contemplated here. It is also time to work with Sri Lankan Diaspora groups who have renounced their ties to the separatist movement in Sri Lanka. Some of these groups gave already pledged to undertake various development programs in the North and the East.

It is also vital to widen our overseas job market. South Korea has already promised to offer jobs to 8,000 Sri Lankan youth this year, while countries such as Japan, Germany, Australia and Canada are opening new legal pathways for employment and migration. The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) must actively pursue these opportunities.

However, care must be taken to ensure a balance in the foreign employment: local retention ratio, lest there is an uncontrollable brain drain. Sri Lanka does need foreign remittances, but it also needs some professionals to remain and serve the motherland, as it carves a trajectory towards becoming a developed nation by 2048, the 100th anniversary of Independence.


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