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Mr President-give me a hearing


Migrant workers generate millions of foreign exchange to the country through their blood, sweat and tears. Just like the plantation workers of Indian-origin who sweated on the estates for the country to reap the fruits of their labour through foreign exchange, with plantations at one time being the biggest foreign currency earner, migrant workers have also become a forgotten lot – remembered only when the Minister in charge speaks eloquently in parliament once a year of earnings from this sector – as if he or she has done a great job!


by FS

(July 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Migrant workers generate millions of foreign exchange to the country through their blood, sweat and tears. Just like the plantation workers of Indian-origin who sweated on the estates for the country to reap the fruits of their labour through foreign exchange, with plantations at one time being the biggest foreign currency earner, migrant workers have also become a forgotten lot – remembered only when the Minister in charge speaks eloquently in parliament once a year of earnings from this sector – as if he or she has done a great job!

However much the Government might defend its position, migrant workers are just a ‘dot’ on the revenue-earnings chart of the Treasury, nothing more than that. Otherwise how does one explain why the Government is yet to initiate a full-fledged inquiry into the Rizana Nafeek case, find and punish the culprit agent who sent an under-age girl abroad?

To further illustrate the shoddy treatment to this sector, the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agents (ALFEA) is yet to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa despite repeated pleas for a meeting over the years to discuss their problems.

“We don’t get any special benefits unlike other foreign exchange earnings sectors like garments, plantations or tourism. We are not even given five minutes to meet the President,” a visibly annoyed Faizer Mackeen, ALFEA Secretary told reporters last week.

The Association has repeatedly asked for an appointment to meet the President. “We asked to meet the President after he won first poll. He then promised to meet us after the second (presidential) poll but nothing happened. He meets taxi drivers/3 wheelers// conductors/farmers but not us? Why? We can’t even get a meeting for five minutes,” he said adding that only the President could solve their problems and issues that agents have with the authorities.

Half the 1.5 million migrant workers abroad are women earning to save to buy a property, put up a house, send the children to school or collect enough cash for a dowry for the daughter’s marriage.
The Rizana Nafeek saga where an under-age girl (16 years) was virturally coerced by a unscrupulous job agent taking advantage of the economic hardships of this Mutur family, to go abroad, and is now languishing in a Saudi jail ahead of a possible execution, is an unfortunate case. The baby in Rizana’s care had choked while being bottle-fed and the domestic was sentenced to death.

The President on an earlier occasion appealed to Saudi authorities for clemency and delayed the execution. However the issue has surfaced once again and migrant worker rights groups are running in all directions desperate to submit the correct plea – that would work- to Saudi authorities. ALFEA says the government is yet to hold a full inquiry, which (if so) is a serious accusation.

“We have been discussing this case for long but so far there is no inquiry to ascertain who is responsible for sending her. Why?,” asked Mackeem. The migrant worker sector is plagued with problems with the much-publicised and worked-on National Policy on Migration still not transformed into a working strategy with legal sanction. Currently the Policy has no legal status and its contents can be implemented only voluntarily.

The Government playing musical chairs with the number of ministers handling this subject is one of the problems as new ministers come with great ideas, but often not practical to implement. Take the latest plan to progressively raise the age limit of those going abroad to 30 and limit it to 42 years. “If they go ahead with this policy, recruitment will fall by 70%,” said another ALFEA member.

Also consider this. If this age limit is enforced, can the Government provide jobs to more than 500,000 women who may have to return home? Fine, the Government wants to limit the number of women going abroad to reduce the social fallout of problems faced by families. However are there jobs at home to provide for these women, some who have been sole breadwinners in the family?

Often decisions are taken without studying or analysing the repercussions of such a move, which in the case of the age barrier would be enormous on society and the economy. In 2007, a Parliamentary Select Committee was appointed to look into the difficulties faced by migrant workers, and an interim report was believed to have been issued. However nothing much has happened since then with workers continuing to have their share of problems and job agents saying the Government is not concerned about their issues.

The problems of the migrant worker have been well documented in the media and the public domain and the President is well aware of these issues. Most problem sectors have access to him like aggrieved depositors of the failed Ceylinco companies and other failed finance, and others like farmers and three-wheel drivers. He met many of these groups in the run-up to the last presidential election as part of the election campaign.

Given the seriousness of their call, foreign employment job agents need to be heard alongside migrant workers and a meeting with the President should resolve many outstanding issues. Over to you Mr President!

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