International Migrants Day 2021

Impact of COVID-19 on labour migration governance in Sri Lanka

December 2021 to commemorate International Migrants Day marked on 18 December. 'The Impact of Covid-19 on Labour Migration Governance' was the theme of the keynote presentation by the Regional Migration Specialist of the ILO Decent Work Team for South Asia, Mr Shabarinath Nair. The participants were mainly representatives of workers' organisations and civil society organisations and think-tanks in Sri Lanka.

The ILO Labour Migration Unit aims to capacitate Trade Unions (TUs) and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to engage in district, national, regional, and global dialogues towards safe, orderly and regular labour migration. Hence, strengthening the TUs and CSOs capacity for the protection of rights as well as empowering them to take part in policy dialogue is essential.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, effective communication, and timely action on labour migration governance are important to all ILO constituents as well as other stakeholders. Thus, Development Partners, Think-Tanks, and Non-Governmental Organisations were invited too.

In her opening remarks, the ILO Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives Ms Simrin Singh highlighted the challenges faced by Sri Lankan migrant workers with the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic instability caused by the increasing number of returnee migrant workers due to job loss in countries of destination, and the severe impact on the wellbeing of migrant workers’ families and the community at large, were some of the key points highlighted by Ms Singh. She also emphasised the “importance of amplifying the skills of returnee migrant workers and reintegrating them into the national workforce as well as enhancing migration-focused skills development which are of utmost importance during this pandemic era”. She also pointed out the discrimination faced by Sri Lankan migrant workers abroad and highlighted the importance of protecting the rights and well-being of migrant workers.

Mr Shabarinath Nair, in his keynote prsentation began with the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. He highlighted that Sri Lanka is one of two South Asian countries, (along with Bangladesh) that has ratified this global treaty. “What the pandemic did was to highlight the gaps in labour migration governance”. Drawing on the ILO's periodic monitor on COVID-19 and the world of work, Mr Nair highlighted that “nearly 8 million job losses were expected in the Arab States with the emergence of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, the global estimation of migrant workers was 169 million out of which close to 50 million were from the South Asian region.  Out of that, over 23 million migrant workers around the world are serving the Arab States and the representation of South Asia is significant. If 8 million job losses were expected, the first to be fired and the last to be hired would also be the migrant worker”.

In his remarks, Mr Nair focused on key areas of improvement that need to be addressed in order to ensure safe, orderly, regular as well as responsible migration practices in Sri Lanka.

In the context of COVID-19, one of the overarching issues is whether the countries of origin are equipped to engage the returnee migrants into the national labour force; and what reintegration mechanisms operate to facilitate the increasing numbers of returnees. Mr Nair noted that analysis and reports from Sri Lanka document the exclusion of returnee migrant workers from social welfare programmes, notwithstanding that some could return to the country of origin in a vulnerable situation. While Sri Lanka was the first in South Asia to introduce a Sub-Policy on Return and Reintegration (2015) as part of its National Labour Migration Policy (2008), the efforts in terms of reintegrating migrant workers have not been significant.

Emphasising the issue of unfair recruitment practices prevalent in the labour migration arena Mr Nair shared the findings of a recent study by the ILO with the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. In Bangladesh, migrant workers are paying the equivalent of 18 months of their wages to recruitment agencies as recruitment fees and related costs. Thus, he recommends that actions should be taken to ensure “how best we can include fair recruitment practices in the context of an employer paying the recruitment fee”.

Highlighting the importance of upskilling potential migrant workers, Mr Nair suggested investing more in the policy perspectives as well as the financial perspectives of the country of origin would be timely actions. “If we are upskilling potential migrant workers merely on the basis of meeting the demands of the host countries, we are being a disservice to our own nation as well as our domestic labour market. Let us ensure that skilling happens as a priority for the domestic labour market bearing in mind migration is a choice but not a must”.

With the pandemic, many Sri Lankans might consider seeking employment opportunities overseas, simply for survival, irrespective of the nature and quality of the job. Thus, effective dialogues need to be taking place on framing Bilateral Labour Agreements to ensure decent work for migrant workers in the host countries.

Another aspect that needs to be looked into is identifying new labour markets. Majority of the South Asian migrant workers end-up in traditional labour markets such as the Middle East and the Arab States. However, “governments in South Asia are now in the process of making bilateral agreements with new labour markets such as Mauritius, Japan, Rumania, Poland, and in Africa as well as Latin America, which is indeed a positive trend”.

It is important to recognise issues of social protection, remittances as well as the gendered experiences of female migrant workers, and its intersections across the different issues highlighted above. Women have been and will continue to play an important role in labour migration. Thus, concrete actions need to be in place to ensure their protection but also agency; not merely focusing on their vulnerability but also their dignity as migrant workers who immensely contribute to the national economy.

Hence, it is important to identify prevailing policy gaps and address them effectively for women to be able to migrate in a safe, orderly and regular manner. It is important to identify the actions to be taken to strengthen regional dialogues such as the Colombo Process. Further, in ensuring the protection of the migrant workers in line with the Global Compact on Migration framework, UN agencies such as ILO, IOM, and UN Women as well as trade unions and other social partners, and CSOs, have a role to play especially in terms of advocacy.

The session came to an end with participants raising questions and observations on: managing the high standards placed on Sri Lankan labour migration; addressing the loss of remittances in a post-COVID era; relaxation of migration policies and the vulnerability it creates; the challenge of shifting to new markets; as well as the effectiveness of introducing hybrid jobs for returnee migrants.

Considering the high participation, active engagement, as well as positive feedback by the participants, the ILO Labour Migration Unit aims to organise similar discussions in the future with the aim of promoting the rights, safety, as well as well-being of migrant workers