Speech made by the Hon Minister at the inaugural meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Labour Migration on the 10th August 2010


 Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka Thero,
Rev. Fr George Sigamoney,
Fr. Roy Clarence,
Mr. Nissanka Wijeratne , Secretary , Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare,
Mr. Donglin Li, Country Director, ILO Country Office,
Mr. Richard Danzigar, Chief of Mission, IOM,
Additional Secretaries,
Head of Organizations,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today must be my blessed day. Having arrived just three hours ago from Saudi Arabia, I am privileged to inaugurate the National Advisory Committee on Labour Migration. May I extend to all of you, the most hearty welcome.

I assumed duties in this ministry about eight months ago. I, being from Badulla, was clueless about issues of foreign employment. Badulla is so backward that there is very little migration in search of foreign work. In the last eight months I have been like an undergraduate, swatting up on the subject. I must admit to you that neither at the University nor at the Law College had I engaged in such devoted studies. My studies are continuing. I am fortunate that I have inherited the National Labour Migration Policy for Sri Lanka, prepared by my predecessors. One of its recommendations was to have an Advisory Committee on Labour Migration. I ask you, as specialists on different aspects of migrant workers, to teach me more. Therefore, this invitation.

What I learnt on migration is both astounding and saddening. Astounding? Yes! Sri Lanka lives on the exploited fingers of four sets of young girls, the plantation workers, the rubber tappers, the garment workers and migrant workers. It is a little understood fact that migrant workers contributed US $ 4.2 Billion in 2010 to the national economy of Sri Lanka. It is the highest foreign exchange earner, far surpassing Tea, Garments and Tourism. This sum is 33% of foreign exchange earnings, and 8 % of the GDP. This sum financed 80% of import deficit. All of us here are beneficiaries of the hard work of our migrant workers. But for them, a devaluation would have been mandatory, requiring all of us to lower our standards of living. It is expected that there will be a 30% increase in remittances this year, perhaps covering the entire import deficit. This may be the reason why the Governor of the Central Bank has given us accommodation in his building.

But, it is also saddening. This rosy picture masks troublesome realities. Sri Lanka’s migrant labour force is female based, housemaid centered, low skill driven and having a high concentration in the Middle – East. Because it is a 3 D category – Dirty, Dangerous, Despised – barriers to entry are low. It has been the policy of differing governments of Sri Lanka, to allow labour migration at this low level, as a safety value for our unemployment. It lay in harvesting of non-skilled housemaids

Colebrooke, in 1832, introduced capitalism to Sri Lanka. 1832 was the first open economy. Capitalism is a system which hegemonises ( හෙජමනයිසස් ) capital over labour and land. Karl Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, written 15 years later in 1850, predicted that capitalism will produce it’s a anti-theses, that of the proletariat. This proletariat, will be exploited and miserable. His prediction  turned out to be true. The South Indian workers, imported to satisfy the profit motive of the capitalists, were a wretched lot. They were denied labour mobility, placed under a Kangany, were paid peanuts and exploited to the hilt. Karl Marx, writes in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism is “ the heart of the heartless world”. What is most disheartening is that, after 150 years, our migrant workers are in the same  boat, paid peanuts and exploited to the hilt. They are also denied labour mobility, as the employer holds the worker’s passport. I am informed that in Arabic, the colloquial noun for  housemaid is Lanka.

This has to change. The Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare is a human resources institution that deals with our migrant employees. Our migrant workers are not goods to be exported, like potatoes, but human beings. The earlier policy, was to export the lowest level skills, irrespective of the repercussions on them. I wish to rebrand the Ministry, defining development as the process of widening human choices.  I wish that the Ministry be a producer and supplier of quality skilled and                     semi-skilled human resources for overseas markets. From a harvester we must become producers for targeted markets. But, while the ministry is aware of their vulnerability, it should provide them developmental ladders, not, as hitherto, just safety nets. It is about migration with dignity.

In doing so, we must have a moral bound. The greatest curse of the open economy of 1977 was that it brought in a new set of undesirable moral values. It crucified humanity on a Cross of Gold, considering an action successful, if the ends were achieved, irrespective of the means used. It was proud in saying “ Let the robber barons come” . I will never allow unscrupulous labour agents to painfully bundle off migrant workers, whatever the profits it brings or foreign exchange earned by the country. The national policy on migration policy too suffers from this shortcoming. It talks only of outputs not moral outcomes. I have, therefore, invited members of the clergy to be members of the Advisory Committee. I would like them to give their moral blessings for your advice, so that migration is not an activity of suffering and pain, but an activity which widens human choices of the potential migrant.

To do so, we have to deal with issues of migration in systematic matter. Last week, Dr. Saman Kelegama, the Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Studies, privileged me by presenting the first copy of the book edited by him on                 “ Migration, Remittances and Development in South Asia”. He is a member of this Advisory Committee but is unable to make it today, as he is abroad, but, he promises to be present at subsequent meetings. The book looks at different countries and concludes that “remittances are unlikely to lift people out of poverty, rather, their interplay with other economic, social and cultural factors determines the scale and type of the impact that remittances can have on poverty reductions.  I hope, all of you here, read this book with the enthusiasm l did.

Research looks into future: so does planning. But research looks into the future to try to determine what the future would be like, and suggests solutions to the potential problems it foresees. Planning converts these solutions into pragmatic projects. Research is an important element included in the National Labour Migration Policy. I was gladdened that Dr. Kelegama accepting my offer to spearhead the research program on migration. The first output would be a Sri Lanka Migration profile, but, I hope, there will be other outputs. One, crying for an attention, is building scientific migrant databases. The other, is establishing a Migrant Research Institute, like the Refugee and Migration Movement Research Unit (RMMU) of Bangladesh, which I have visited. If tea, rubber, coconut, textiles could have their specialized research institutes, so should Sri Lanka’s highest foreign exchange earner.

I have defined a migrant worker as one, who is to be engaged, is engaged or, has been engaged, in remunerative activities in a State of which he or she is not a national. I would love you to improve on this definition or even replace it. Based on this definition, one of my first decisions, as Minister, was to get a mapping of the migration function. I offer it to you as “The Migrant Worker Cycle”. It starts with the family, a group consisting of a happy father, mother and children. Migration disrupts it. We, as a Ministry, have to provide the hard capabilities for a migrant to be in the skilled and semi-skilled, through pre-departure training. But we must not forget the other side, A migrant worker returns. He or she should be assisted with skills to adjust to the re-entry back home. In short, from the time a migrant leaves, to the time he returns, he or she has vulnerabilities. Our responsibility, as a ministry, is equipping the migrant worker to cope at every stage. Not only we need equip the migrant worker, we have to ensure that there are support structures in place to look after the wellbeing of the families left behind as well.

The organization responsible for managing the migrant process in Sri Lanka is the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, called the Bureau. The Bureau has been reorganized into two divisions; one, responsible for maintenance, the other, for development. All products have their unique life cycle of, growth, acceleration, maturity and demise. The mainstay of migration in Sri Lanka has been low-skilled housemaids. This has reached maturity. New products have to replace it. We are formulated training programmes for house keepers and care givers. We are also exploring the possibilities of training nurses.  Most important of all, we wish to strike a MOU with TVET to enable it to supply the skilled migrants we need.

Since I assumed duties I have been encouraging, three types of training programmes; job specific, company specific and country specific. The distinct difference between our training programs and the others, is that we ensure jobs are available before training is undertaken.  We do this by striking MOUs with selected countries and selected institutions. Korea is an example of a successful MOU. We are now engaged in negotiation with Israel, Cyprus, Italy. In three days time, I will be going to Malaysia to finalize a similar MOU.

While we are engaged in attending to aspects of migration reform within Sri Lanka, we must not forget that we cannot achieve much, without international support. We have established the Colombo Process. This is an association of labour sending countries of Asia. We are also active participants in the Abu Dhabi Dialogue. The Abu Dhabi Dialogue is a collection of labour receiving countries of the Middle East. Prof. Kelegama’s book has a chapter on to international cooperation within the Asian region. I hope he could, as part of his research effort, flesh out how the Colombo process, the Abu Dhabi Dialogue could be further expand. It is hoped this initiative would develop into a international UN type organization. Agriculture has the FAO, industry as the UNIDO           education has the UNESCO, It is high time that remittances, which has a worldwide market of US $ 500 billion, should have its own agency, This effort would get support from an independent initiative. Recently, Prof. Kotler, the No. 1 management guru on human resources, held a number seminars in Sri Lanka. I had extended discussions with him. Like Davos, which deals with economic matters, we need a location to discuss matters pertaining to human resources. He agreed. It was decided that the first meeting will be held in Colombo on 12/12/12, which comes once in 300 years. Of its five themes, migration will be one.

I have covered a few items pertaining to migrant issues.  The Buddha said that the prime responsibility of human beings is to be of service to human beings. All other religions say the same. We have an excellent opportunity, as part of our professional life, to be of service to our migrant workers. I hope we fully grasp this opportunity. As for me, I am a learning animal. I am waiting to learn what you will teach me.
Thank you,