The first thing I noticed upon arriving to Sri Lanka was the lack of military checkpoints. As my previous visits all took place during the decades-long civil war, I was seeing peacetime Colombo for the first time. And while peace is a massive accomplishment for any country, there are many challenges that remain for this island nation.
Like many countries in South Asia, Sri Lanka is grappling with the mixed blessings of labor migration, or “pain and gain” as some like to say. While providing critical revenue for the country, migrants face hardships while working overseas and their governments struggle to protect them through a mishmash of policy and diplomatic manuveuring.
Case in point: the entire country is currently riveted to the plight of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker who has been sentenced to death by execution in Saudi Arabia. According to local accounts, Rizana’s identity documents were falsified by a recruiter to allow her to subvert the minimum age requirement for overseas workers; she was just 16 years old when she went abroad to work. In a tragic turn of events, the baby in her care died and she was charged with murder, rather than negligence.
Rizana’s story was on the lips of everyone I spoke with, from the Chairman of the Foreign Employment Bureau (FEB), to the Secretary of the National Workers Congress. Yet Sri Lanka is powerless to stop Saudi Arabia from proceeding with the execution, as Indonesia learned just last month when one of their workers was beheaded in Saudi Arabia without the Indonesian embassy receiving any prior notice.
Partly at issue is the reliance of labor sending countries on migrant remittances to bolster gross domestic product. Although sending countries try to negotiate for improved working conditions and protections for their citizens abroad, the receiving countries hold all the cards. When the Philippines attempted to impose a minimum wage for their domestic workers abroad, Saudi Arabia responded by banning new workers from the Philippines. With more workers deployed to Saudi Arabia than any other country, this puts the Philippines in a difficult position.
During my visit to Sri Lanka, there were indications that the government is trying to do more to protect its workers, including cracking down on illegal recruiters and preparing departing workers for life abroad. During an impromptu tour of the FEB offices, we even saw case officers reviewing contracts with workers about to be sent to work in factories in the Mid-East. While the contracts still were not in the local language, case officers were explaining the terms of the contract with the workers.
It’s more than was being done before, according to local NGO groups. However, such groups are pushing for much more to be done, including engagement by government with civil society, improved governance and strategy on migration policy, more focus on safe migration for workers, as well as development of alternative economic opportunities at home.
It seems that while Sri Lanka is finding the path to improving migrant worker protections, actual implementation remains a challenge.