Credibility eludes the Government

by FS

(June 14, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Is the Government shooting itself in the foot by going ahead with the Overseas Employees Pensions’ Benefits Fund? Having learnt the bitter lesson of being compelled to withdraw the Private Sector Pension Bill due to growing agitation against its contents, the Government is again plunging into another controversy by going ahead with the pension scheme for migrant workers without public consultation.

Migrant workers are an unorganized group and unlike powerful trade unions in the private sector, cannot muster any discussion or debate on issues pertaining to their future, which is very, very unfortunate.

Working on the blind-side, the Government while announcing a withdrawal of the Pension Bill has been silent on the pension scheme for migrant workers, both of which were presented to Parliament in April .

By the very nature of being an unorganized sector; no trade union support and most workers being abroad and furthermore workers (mostly young mothers) being more concerned about their kith and kin back home than their rights; there has been little discussion in the media about this scheme. Except perhaps the Business Times which, like a lone sentinel has consistently raised these issues ever since the migrant workers pension scheme came on the Order Paper of Parliament.

In an editorial on May 1, the Business Times said: “…. migrant workers – constantly wooed by the government as a potent force because of their foreign exchange earning capacity – unfortunately does not enjoy the luxury of strong employers (in this case local job agents may fall into this category) or trade unions to protest strongly against the bill. Even rights groups working on their behalf have failed to see the dangers lurking with the ‘Overseas Employees Pension Benefits Fund’ and are groping in the dark over the issue, not realizing its consequences.’

Granted the pension scheme for migrant workers is a voluntary one. Yet it has some serious concerns.

Further the editorial pointed out: “The government owes it to migrant workers. Treat them with respect particularly the women who make a lot of sacrifices and muster a lot of courage to earn for the family and the country. Don’t squander away their hard earned savings. That would amount to daylight robbery.”

To this day, as pointed earlier, migrant workers’ rights activists and supporters have failed to drum up debate and discussion on the Bill which as a result would see the plan going through without a public debate, unlike the Pension Bill.

The biggest problem today in (almost) everything the Government does is the lack of transparency and hurried implementation of plans without enough time for discussion. That is clearly evident in the case of the Pension Bill which was submitted by the Government behind the back of the National Labour Advisory Council, a tripartite body comprising representatives of the labour authorities, workers and employers. The Council was promised a discussion on a draft that was given to representatives, only to find the Bill being presented to Parliament and its contents differing from an earlier draft.

This bull-in-the-china shop approach resulted in mass protests and the unfortunate death of a worker, a situation that would have been easily avoided if the Bill was subject to sufficient public debate.

The Business Times Email poll and street survey on the Pension Bill, reported in this edition, reflects growing public concern over the credibility of the Government. Most respondents say that they don’t trust the Government “with our money” and even if it’s a good scheme “it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Public concern centres on the intentions of the Government in introducing this scheme. While there is no doubt, workers need a pension – particularly with the number of older persons in the population increasing - , the question being asked is: “Will the Government use the contributions to fund its expenditure?” While the Bill may have its good intentions with a pension for workers, there is however ambiguity in some provisions which hopefully will be clarified once, and if, the Bill is re-drafted after consultations with workers and employers.

What is also missing, as pointed out by one respondent, is the lack of proper public awareness of the Bill. “While the Bill is on the Internet, it has not been published in the media. Why not?” the respondent asked. In the past, the Government has run advertisements explaining provisions of any sensitive regulation which in this case hasn’t happened. Thus the public at large (not many have access to the Internet) are clearly unaware of its contents and have to go by what is reported in the newspapers – though one may argue that the Bill is available at the Government Publications Office!

Concern as to whether the pension collections would be used for other purposes is also a reasonable assumption given the fact that the Government is cash strapped and virtually moving funds from one Ministry allocation to another based on the urgency of the day. Treasury sources say that revenue is insufficient for expenditure while economists say this is why the Government is constantly looking around for cash reservoirs and then captive funds like pension schemes become attractive propositions to use.

Credibility is a hard commodity for the government and our poll clearly reflects public opinion which the Government should seriously consider and set it right instead of either rejecting these issues or putting them on the back burner. President Mahinda Rajapaksa would do right by directing an open discussion on the migrant workers’ bill, and only then, implementation.

After all MR is a reasonable man and knows that the ‘President (as an institution)’ is the custodian of the people’s assets and automatically should have their consent on anything that affects their future.

Surely he won’t permit any injustice to thousands of migrant workers, mostly women who leave the shores of Sri Lanka to seek that pot of gold for the sake of their family and the nation.

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