International Migrants Day 2021

Skilling Sri Lankan migrant workers towards the Global talent pool

Marking International Migrants Day (18 December), the ILO Country Office jointly with the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) organised a multi-stakeholder consultative forum on “Skilling Sri Lankan migrant workers towards the Global talent pool”.

The focus of this event was to emphasise the importance of a focus on labour migrants in Sri Lanka's skills development portfolio, while sharing good policies and practices amongst the stakeholders, and creating public awareness on skilled employment opportunities available in both national and international labour markets.                                                                                    

The Hon. Dr Seetha Arambepola, State Minister for Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research & Innovation was the Chief Guest. Participants representing the Government of Sri Lanka, employers’ organisations, trade unions, UN entities, Development Partners, academia as well as think-tanks, were present physically at this event, which in parallel was live-streamed on social media.

Two keynote speeches and two panel discussions were held with the participation of the respective partner institutions.

Delivering the opening remarks, Dr K. A. Lalithadeera, Director-General, TVEC highlighted the importance of foreign employment to the national economy. As per the Central Bank, in 2019 personal remittances has accounted for USD. 6.7 billion making a significant contribution to the Sri Lankan economy. Thus, Dr Lalithadheera highlighted skilled migration as the most viable solution to address issues relating to financial instability, repayment of debts, youth unemployment and under-employment in the country.

Ms Simrin Singh, Country Director, ILO Country Office for Sri Lanka and the Maldives in her introductory speech highlighted that “what Sri Lanka needs is a strategic way to make every Sri Lankan have a success story of their own”. Thus, it is required to create a conducive and inclusive environment that will promote a knowledge economy, increase labour market participation for both women and men, support life-long learning and career progression, facilitate labour mobility and rights at work, improve occupational safety and health, and ensure social protection.

Emphasising the labour migration perspective, Ms Singh highlighted three core aspects to be considered in creating a better tomorrow for all migrant workers.
  • guide and facilitate the prospective migrant workers to become more skilful
  • promote and support the in-service migrant workers to improve their skills levels as well as recognition of their work experience within the skills recognition process
  • the effective reintegration of returning migrant workers requires a high focus
Concluding her thoughts Ms Singh stated that “we need to pay a high importance on ensuring inclusivity in our interventions so that none of the above categories is deprived of opportunities”.

Hon. Dr Seetha Arambepola, State Minister for Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research & Innovation in her speech explained the range of initiatives taken by her Ministry in relation to skilling Sri Lankan migrants for foreign employment. Thus, increasing skilled Sri Lankan migrant workers, improving national vocational training services, providing self-employability skills, and enhancing women’s contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) are some of the key expected outcomes of these efforts.

Through such initiatives, Sri Lanka aims to reduce the unskilled labour force below 10%, and to provide opportunities for everyone, especially women, to contribute to the national economy. “Around 44% of the global workforce is working in low-skilled occupations. In Sri Lanka, the unskilled workforce was around 25% in 2020 and the pandemic has prevented us from reducing it. Improving foreign remittances through a skilled and professional workforce employed overseas is a priority,” the Hon. State Minister added.

She emphasised the need for revising past strategies, upgrading the labour force into skilled workers, exploring new markets for skilled labour, sound knowledge and a better understanding of global market conditions as essential factors to be considered in establishing Sri Lanka in the global arena for skilled labour.

This consultative forum was conducted over two sessions where the initial session was on mainstreaming skilled migration into the national skills development agenda; and the following session was on skills recognition and development for effective reintegration.

Mr Gabriel Bordado, ILO Skills and Employability Specialist, Decent Work Team, South Asia, delivered the initial keynote speech with a focus on “strategic skills policies for migrant workers”.

Mr Bordado emphasised that “the under-utilisation of migrants’ skills in countries of destination contributes to brain waste; while lack of employment opportunities in countries of origin contribute to brain drain. Further, weak skills development systems and policies constitute a push factor where skills development systems in countries of origin are often underdeveloped and underfunded and are unresponsive to labour market needs, and access to training is restricted for certain disadvantaged groups. He made a special note on the lifelong learning systems that are not sufficiently developed, or sometimes completely absent. Such factors steer highly skilled migrants, who constitute 28.7% of the global migrant population, to seek education, training, and development elsewhere”.

Dr Bilesha Weeraratne, Head of Migration and Urbanisation Research, Institute of Policy Studies (IPS Sri Lanka) moderated the initial panel discussion, comprising a range of experts representing the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA).

Mr Mangala Randeniya, Deputy General Manager, SLBFE elaborated on the adverse impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the labour migration sector stating that “our target was to send 300,000 skilled migrant workers per year, and it was achieved in 2014. However, after 2014, we observed a decline. In 2021, only 121,000 Sri Lankans left for overseas employment; and in 2020, only 53,000 were abroad due to the pandemic. The destination countries’ requirement is to have skilled labour for all categories of employment including in the helping category. Thus, the SLBFE is working towards providing necessary competencies for every Sri Lankan who is hoping to migrate for foreign employment”.

Dr Janaka Jayalath, Deputy Director-General, TVEC highlighted that “nearly 100,000 migrant workers returned to Sri Lanka due to the pandemic and they are keen on obtaining the necessary recognition for their expertise and experience. TVEC is facilitating them in terms of conducting skills assessments and providing certificates. The migrants who are in the destination countries are also willing to get their informally acquired skills formally recognised. According to Dr Jayalath due to the increased demand from migrant workers on getting their skills assessed, the TVEC is willing to expand its services by collaborating with the SLBFE and National Industrial Training Authority (NAITA) in conducting skills assessments.

Ms Priyangika Wijegunasekara, Director-General (Consular Affairs) of the Foreign Ministry explained its role towards the welfare of migrant workers highlighting that “apart from documentation, the Ministry also intervenes to assist migrant workers who face issues in the destination countries especially those who have not been registered with the SLBFE”.

Mr Sameera Jayawardene, Director (Capacity Building), ICTA highlighted the importance of virtual migration, especially during this pandemic era. He further emphasised the importance of matching the competencies with the requirements of the destination countries and upskill and reskill competencies as per the demand. He further stated that irrespective of the profession, youth should be capacitated with the required ICT knowledge to sustain themselves in the global market.  

The second keynote speech was delivered by Mr Chrishan Pereira, Deputy Chief of Party, International Executive Service Corps (IESC) focusing on skills recognition and development for effective reintegration. His speech was focused on return and reintegration aspects in labour migration and the importance of skills in the 21st century.

Mr Pereira mentioned that return and re-integration is a rigorous experience for migrant workers. The return and reintegration process involve multiple aspects such as social reintegration, economic reintegration, physical and psychological wellbeing, mobilisation and empowerment and effective management of return and reintegration.

He further emphasised that special attention should be paid to sustainable reintegration rather than effective reintegration. “We talk about effectively reintegrating into society, socially and even financially, at a given point. But, in order to make it effective, we need to make sure that the return and reintegration are sustainable so that they will be a part of the whole ecosystem of return and reintegration for a long or a strategic period of time. From an institutional perspective, effective reintegration includes coming back to the country safely, in an economically stable state, although temporarily. Even though their migration objectives may have been accomplished, it is a very short objective of migration for employment.”

Mrs Madhavie Gunawardena, Director, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) moderated the second-panel discussion which comprised a range of experts representing the Ministry of Skills Development Vocational Education, Research & Innovation (MSDVER&I), Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission, State Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion & Market Diversification (SMFEP&MD), Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), and the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC).

Mrs Himali Athaudage, Additional Secretary, MSDVER&I, whilst highlighting the role of her Ministry, stated that it is mandated to skilling, re-skilling and up-skilling of migrant workers, and special attention is paid to skilling youth. Further, she explained that re-skilling and up-skilling have been neglected until now and the Ministry is looking forward to taking up those areas as well to enhance the livelihood of migrant workers while benefiting the national economy.

She highlighted that aside from all the negative effects of the pandemic the Ministry has taken steps to introduce modern modes of learning such as online learning, blended learning, as well as online assessments targeting the youth as well as existing migrant workers.

Mr Nikaril Kanth, Senior Assistant Secretary, SMFEP&MD elaborated its engagement with multi-sectoral partners including other state institutions, private sector organisations, development partners as well as donor agencies. Highlighting the importance of return and re-integration especially during this pandemic era. Mr Kanth mentioned that “When a person departs, they have to think about return and reintegration as well, and they have to plan it. The State Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion & Market Diversification developed a Migration Policy in 2008, and we saw the need for including return and reintegration also in it. Some modifications were made after consultations, and review of the existing policies with the assistance of the ILO and the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC)”. Further, he also highlighted the National Covid Response Plan developed during the initial stages of the pandemic in collaboration with SLBFE, ILO and IOM.

Dr Ajith Polwatta, Director, TVEC speaking of inbound migrants mentioned that “returnee migrants bring not only skills but also knowledge, attitudes as well as technology to the motherland. In the stage of reintegration what matters the most is the qualifications. Qualifications ensure mobility between countries or workplaces, improve recognition and respect of the person. Thus, it is important to remove the barriers and assist migrants to obtain their qualifications”.

Mr Dasun Kodituwakku, Senior Specialist, EFC stated that the EFC is continuously supporting the TVEC in developing the skills passport which will enable to store the migrant worker’s information in digital form, which will ease employability. He further highlighted the importance of connecting such databases with the labour demands of different industries which will ease the reintegration process.

Finally, Mr Aminda James, Senior Manager (Capacity Building), ICTA mentioned that “ICTA is tasked with the creation of a 300,000 strong ICT workforce, especially in the ICT segment”. Thus, ICTA is seeking accelerating graduates to the ICT stream and is also closely working with the TVEC to increase the opportunities for TVEC students to join the ICT stream. He further stated that “enhancing the ICT knowledge of migrant workers would assist ICTA to reach its mandate while contributing to the national economy”.

The multi-stakeholder consultative forum came to an end with the closing remarks of Mr. B Skanthakumar, Senior Programme Officer, ILO Country Office recalling the Hon. Minister’s opening words “we have embarked on a difficult but important task of skilling Sri Lanka’s labour force for the needs of the country but also looking outwards”. He thanked all the participants for making this event an honest and frank discussion while identifying constraints, gaps and limitations and also for their commitment in overcoming those challenges.