Sri Lanka is an important source of labour migrants, with the number of workers going abroad increasing considerably over the last few decades. Recent estimates suggest that over a million migrants work abroad, while the annual reported outflows are about 200,000 persons. In this regard, it should be noted that female migration from Sri Lanka has declined in recent years (e.g. from 138,312 in 2012 to 90,677 in 2015). The Middle East is a main destination (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Oman, in particular) for the labour migration of both men and women. The most common age groups for migration are 35-39 years for women and 25-29 years for men. Because many of the overseas employment opportunities are for domestic work, a high share of Sri Lankan migrants are young women working as housemaids. Sri Lankans abroad also commonly work for airlines or in the hospitality and banking industries.
Recognizing the increasing importance of overseas work but also risks associated with exploitative recruitment, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) was established under the Ministry of Labour in 1985. This agency’s mission is to “create efficient and equitable pathways for people to benefit from their skills in overseas employment markets securing interests of all stakeholders while contributing to economic growth.” Being the lead government agency that regulates migrant recruitment in Sri Lanka, the SLBFE has an important role in ensuring ethical practices by local recruitment agencies. The SLBFE also instituted a new regulation in 2013 (namely, the Family Background Report) to prevent female domestic workers with children under the age of five from engaging in international labour migration. These developments are controversial, as unsafe migration (as well as exploitation and breach of contracts by employers) is more likely to result when women try circumventing the regulation.
Despite government regulations and efforts to formalize the recruitment process, prospective migrants are still vulnerable to abuse by recruiters in a number of ways. First, the recruitment process is complex, lengthy, and difficult to understand, especially for low-skilled migrant workers. In this regard, the recruitment and placement fees charged by recruiting sub-agents are often excessive and above the charges outlined by the SLBFE. These often cause the prospective migrant to fall into recruitment-related debt that is exploited until paid off. There are, for example, reports of employers deducting or withholding salaries until recruitment-related debt is repaid in full. Unfortunately, the amount of the debt and method of repayment may not be clear in a written agreement, causing further uncertainty and vulnerability for migrants while abroad. Moreover, some Sri Lankan agencies have recruited medically or intellectually disabled workers just to receive financial benefit from the fees. It has also been observed that – due to high demand of domestic workers in GCC countries – women in Sri Lanka have received incentive payments (between three and seven months of salary) from prospective employers for migrating; this is of concern, as the situation could prompt women to migrate against their will.
There are also reports of recruitment agents failing to provide full information concerning the work conditions (e.g. salary, working hours) and responsibilities once abroad. It is not uncommon for agents to withhold information in order to deceive the prospective migrant about the difficult conditions of employment. Even though the Code of Ethical Conduct for Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies and Licensees (CoEC) stipulates that agents should fight against fraud, misinterpretation, and unethical practices, overseas workers still often find themselves in unexpected vulnerable situations. For example, some recruiters practice a ‘double contract’ system, wherein workers have travelled to their host country on the basis of a signed contract only to find out that their employer was making use of another contract with different terms. Membership in the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) is not compulsory, meaning that there are also a number of private, unregulated sub-agents that exist in both Sri Lanka and receiving countries. Such sub-agents are especially used by potential migrants in rural areas, who do not always have access to the licensed agencies usually based in cities. Informal sub-agents have been reportedly engaged with corruption (e.g. bribery, document forgery), trafficking of migrant workers, and sexual abuse. Finally, there are reports of recruiters ordering prospective domestic workers to take contraceptives before departure, leading to a greater likelihood of sexual abuse during the recruitment process and once abroad. Despite these malpractices, recruitments agencies and their sub-agents only rarely face prosecution or punitive damages.
Find out more about the degree of respect for worker’s rights in this country based on ITUC Global Rights Index here.