Well-being of migrant workers prioritised- Manusha Nanayakkara | Sunday Observer

Well-being of migrant workers prioritised- Manusha Nanayakkara

6 August, 2023

In an interview with the Sunday Observer, Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment, Manusha Nanayakkara, delves into the intricacies of Sri Lanka’s efforts to ensure the well-being and rights of its migrant workers, propel its international engagement, and pave the way for a promising future through the visionary 2048 plan.

As a stalwart advocate for labour dignity and equitable opportunities, Minister Nanayakkara sheds light on the Government’s comprehensive strategies to uplift informal workers, expand foreign employment horizons, and chart a transformative path for the nation.

Excerpts from the interview

Q: Recent reports have raised concerns about the well-being and treatment of Sri Lankan migrant workers abroad. How is your Ministry addressing these concerns and ensuring their safety and rights?

A: We have taken significant steps to prioritise the well-being of our migrant workers. Unlike in the past, we now send workers abroad based on our country’s laws and regulations. We have implemented a comprehensive insurance policy covering domestic sector workers and extended it to all other categories.

Additionally, mandatory training and pre-departure health check-ups are now made to ensure workers are well-prepared and in good health. We acknowledge the challenges of illegal migration and human trafficking, and to tackle these issues, we have collaborated with the Defence Ministry and have established a special task force. We are also actively engaging in awareness campaigns to minimise human trafficking.

Q: Can you elaborate on the progress made in safeguarding migrant workers, given the increase in their numbers compared to previous years?

A: Despite the increasing number of migrant workers, it is reassuring to note that this season has seen the least number of complaints. During my tenure, we have made it a priority to promptly address any concerns raised by migrant workers. However, it is important to highlight the role of social media in magnifying isolated incidents.

While we are committed to addressing every concern, social media tends to portray a different picture, often exaggerating the overall situation.

Q: The Middle East has been a key destination for Sri Lankan migrant workers. In the light of recent geopolitical developments in the region, how is your ministry ensuring the welfare of our workers in these countries?

A: Our approach to ensuring the welfare of our workers in the Middle East has adapted to the changing circumstances. While the region has experienced geopolitical developments, it is noteworthy that the situation for foreign workers has improved. Stricter cultural policies have been relaxed, which is a positive development for our workers. I want to clarify that these changes do not significantly impact geopolitical dynamics. The progress in the region’s rules is evident.

The safety of our workers is of paramount importance. We have intensified our efforts to ensure their well-being by focusing on certain sectors. Currently, our emphasis is on sending workers for caregiver roles and the construction sector, rather than as domestic workers. This strategic shift allows us to enhance safety measures and better protection for our workers.

Q: Sri Lanka has been exploring new markets for foreign employment, such as South Korea and Japan. Could you share the progress and potential of these initiatives in providing employment opportunities for our citizens?

A: Absolutely, our efforts to diversify foreign employment avenues have indeed opened promising prospects. In collaboration with South Korea, we have secured the E-7 Visa category, a significant achievement allowing Korean companies to hire foreign professionals. This demonstrates the growing recognition of our skilled workforce.

Moreover, our focus extends to sectors like agriculture, fisheries, and shipbuilding in South Korea. We are actively sending workers to contribute to the thriving shipbuilding industry. Meanwhile, Japan has also emerged as a beacon of opportunity. During a recent visit, Japanese authorities expressed their intent to recruit a substantial number of Sri Lankan workers—up to 100,000.

Over time, our collaboration with Japan has expanded, resulting in the establishment of training centres tailored to Japanese employment needs. This visionary move not only creates more job opportunities but also promises higher income prospects for our workforce.

In Japan, our bilateral agreement has paved the way for increased employment categories. We have transitioned from three categories to four, and we aspire to further diversify, targeting seven categories within the coming year. This progressive approach aligns with our commitment to empowering our citizens with varied avenues. Furthermore, we recognise the importance of linguistic proficiency. To tap into the potential of Japanese employment, we are engaging in discussions to enhance Japanese language skills among Sri Lankans. This could commence from the school level or through vocational training centres, fostering a workforce that can seamlessly integrate into the Japanese job market.

Intriguingly, there is a unique plan on the horizon—recruiting retired SL Army personnel for opportunities in Japan. This innovative approach not only harnesses their skills but also contributes to their post-retirement well-being.

Q: Sri Lanka has entered into bilateral agreements with various nations to ensure the welfare of migrant workers. Can you shed light on the impact and effectiveness of these agreements in upholding the rights of our workers abroad?

A: Undoubtedly, the signing of bilateral agreements marks a significant step towards safeguarding the well-being of our migrant workers. These agreements, often Government to Government (G to G) in nature, lay a foundation for securing labour rights and ensuring a supportive environment for our workers in foreign lands.

Our proactive approach has led to notable agreements with countries like South Korea, Japan, and Israel, among others. These agreements encompass multiple dimensions, ranging from labour safety to repatriation. While our Ministry has been committed to establishing these crucial agreements, I must acknowledge that certain delays have emerged from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Despite these delays, our efforts have been resolute. We have successfully embarked on G to G agreements, which have the potential to streamline the safeguarding of our workers’ rights. This includes not only their safety during their overseas employment but also their smooth and efficient repatriation upon the completion of their contracts.

The bilateral agreements we have established encompass a comprehensive array of areas crucial to migrant worker well-being. These include matters related to labour conditions, health, legal protections, wages, and social benefits. The aim is to create an environment where our workers’ rights are not only respected but also rigorously upheld.

Challenges have arisen due to delays from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While we have diligently pursued G to G agreements covering safety and repatriation, there have been instances where the pace of progress has been affected.

Nevertheless, our commitment remains unshaken. We continue to work towards swift and effective implementation, seeking collaborations and open channels of communication with partner countries. By addressing challenges head-on and proactively engaging with our counterparts, we strive to ensure that our migrant workers are provided with the protections they rightfully deserve.

Q: Brain drain remains a concern as skilled Sri Lankans seek prospects abroad. How does your Ministry endeavour to retain local talent while also embracing international opportunities?

A: The issue of brain drain deserves a comprehensive understanding. It is crucial to differentiate between skilled workers who register with the Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment and the professionals who, after benefiting from Government-funded education, choose to pursue opportunities abroad. While the latter is often perceived as brain drain, I view it through a different lens.

It is important to recognise that the departure of these professionals can create new avenues and possibilities for those who remain within the country. These skilled individuals might return with enhanced experience and knowledge, contributing to a ‘brain gain’ scenario. Embracing the concept of labour mobility, which is widely seen as positive in the modern world, we can adopt a more optimistic perspective.

Our strategies aim to create an environment where the workforce sees both local and international opportunities as complementary rather than conflicting. By ensuring that those who leave for international experiences return with value-added skills, we can facilitate a cycle of knowledge exchange that benefits our nation.

Q: The informal labour sector is a crucial part of Sri Lanka’s workforce. How does your Ministry plan to tackle the challenges faced by informal workers and facilitate their integration into formal employment structures?

A: Indeed, the informal labour sector is vital to our country’s economic fabric. Our Ministry is committed to addressing the challenges faced by these workers and empowering them with a sense of labour dignity. We have strategically outlined our key result areas and work towards these objectives with precision and purpose.

The concept of labour dignity lies at the core of our approach. We believe that every profession deserves dignity, and this principle guides our efforts to uplift informal workers. Our goal is to create an environment where all types of labour are respected and valued, bridging the gap between informal and formal employment structures.

To achieve this, we are implementing crucial measures. We insist on formalising informal jobs by ensuring that all workers, irrespective of their profession, pay their income taxes through e-wages and contribute to social security schemes like EPF and ETF. This not only safeguards the workers’ rights but also enables them to access social benefits and long-term financial security. I am also proposing that prostitution be legalised, since each and every profession deserves dignity.

By legalising prostitution, we create an avenue for these workers to be recognised and protected under the law. This formalisation not only empowers them to access social benefits but also safeguards them from exploitation and abuse.

We are also enhancing regulations and legal provisions to protect the rights of workers in all professions. For instance, even in domestic work, we have introduced a practitioner license requirement to ensure the well-being and safety of domestic workers.

Additionally, we have embarked on a licensing process, where all professions will be provided with licenses. The Human Development Department of our Ministry is diligently overseeing this process to streamline the integration of informal workers into formal structures.

Q: Turning to politics, there has been much speculation regarding a potential exodus from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) to the Government. Could you shed light on whether such a shift is likely to occur in the near future?

A: Indeed, an exodus from the SJB to the Government is a topic that has garnered considerable attention. The signs indicate that this transition is imminent and could take place sooner than anticipated. Many individuals are expected to join our ranks when President Ranil Wickremesinghe declares his intention to run for the Presidency.

It is worth noting that while these individuals maintain a technical association with the SJB, their support for our cause is resolute. Despite their formal affiliations, they have been extending their fullest support to the Government. This unity of purpose and shared goals is indicative of a potential realignment in the political landscape.

Q: There is an ongoing discourse regarding the choice of President for the upcoming election. Some voices advocate for President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s candidacy, while others within the SLPP express their desire for an independent candidate. What is your assessment of President Wickremesinghe’s suitability for the country’s current and future needs?

A: Without a doubt, President Wickremesinghe stands as the most fitting choice for our nation’s current circumstances and future endeavours. His leadership, experience, and vision make him a stalwart figure capable of guiding Sri Lanka towards progress and prosperity.

While differing viewpoints are natural in a democratic society, it is important to recognise that the selection of a leader should align with the best interests of our country. President Wickremesinghe’s unwavering dedication to the betterment of Sri Lanka has been evident throughout his tenure.

In the realm of politics, diverse parties express their distinct aspirations. However, at the core of these varying perspectives is a shared goal – to safeguard and uplift our beloved motherland.

This common purpose often transcends party lines, leading to collective decisions for the greater good. Considering the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, President Wickremesinghe’s leadership shines as a beacon of stability and progress. His track record of service, coupled with his deep understanding of our nation’s dynamics, positions him as a frontrunner in charting a successful course for Sri Lanka.

Q: The President’s 2048 Vision has faced criticism from the Opposition. Could you explain why you believe this vision is crucial at this juncture?

A: The 2048 vision put forth by President Wickremesinghe is a testament to his visionary leadership and forward-thinking approach. It stands in stark contrast to previous administrations, which often prioritised personal gain and power. President Wickremesinghe’s motivation is rooted solely in the betterment of our country. His commitment to a prosperous future is evident through the carefully crafted 2048 vision, which encompasses a detailed roadmap for progress. This vision is not a mere dream - it is a meticulously planned journey with annual targets and goals.

The immediate focus of this vision is to address pressing issues faced by our citizens, paving the way for subsequent phases. We aim to tackle challenges such as debt restructuring and seize investment opportunities to fuel economic growth. This pragmatic approach ensures that each step is well-calibrated and executed effectively.

While the year 2048 might seem distant, it signifies a culmination of years of dedicated work. President Wickremesinghe’s intent is to steer Sri Lanka on a trajectory of growth and prosperity that extends well beyond his own time in office. This selfless dedication aims to create a nation where future generations thrive.

Children born during this period are poised to inherit a nation of promise, while today’s youth will witness the unfolding of an era marked by progress. President Wickremesinghe’s vision encapsulates the collective aspirations of a brighter future for all Sri Lankans.