Last updated on June 14, 2020
By Mohammed Lafir
Migrant Workers Under Covid-19 Conditions
The Sri Lankan workers, many of whom are destitute and currently staying in unsafe and overcrowded accommodation, even staged a protest outside the Sri Lankan embassy in Kuwait recently. Several workers spoke out on YouTube videos calling on the authorities to get them back home. The same requests are being circulated on social media from many parts of the gulf including UAE, Qatar KSA, Lebanon, Jordan and Bahrain.
These events and their plight prompted me to write a few sentences as to what I feel.
There are over one million Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East, one component of the multi-million-strong South Asian workforce of the middle East. The Sri Lankan government massively dependent on these remittances which accounts for more than $7 billion annually from these workers.
Successive governments have hypocritically praised these workers as the “lifeblood of the country,” but the real attitude of was blurted out by Mahindananda Aluthgamage, a former minister. Appearing on a television talk show, he referred to the infected workers as “human bombs.”
Even Foreign direct investments is a mean figure compared to the foreign remittances of our work force.
Army Commander Shavendra Silva, head of the National Operation Centre for the Prevention of COVID-19, told the media recently that 157 coronavirus cases had resulted from workers returning from abroad referring to returning migrant workers from Kuwait. “If more Sri Lankans were repatriated from Middle Eastern (ME) countries,” he said, “there’s the possibility of more infected patients.”
On May 26, President Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s media division announced that a “new mechanism is to be formulated to repatriate Sri Lankans.” Information about the “new mechanism” has not yet been released.
The recent surge in increase in the number of cases reported in Sri Lanka was primarily attributed to the virus-infected migrant workers returning from Kuwait, Dubai and Qatar, along with increased cases among Sri Lankan sailors.
The migrant workers have correctly pointed out that they became infected because the authorities in Sri Lanka refused to organize their prompt repatriation at the right time. There are still more than 16,000 migrant workers stranded with lapsed visas in Kuwait alone.
On April 21, the Kuwaiti government granted a “general amnesty period” so these workers could leave the country. The Sri Lankan government, however, failed to immediately organize their return, even as the pandemic was rapidly spreading in Kuwait at the time. The same plight applies to other destinations too. The repeated requests to the respective Embassies have fallen on deaf ears.
Some Permanent Problems that exist for Decades
The migrant work force has been in the receiving end of many other ill treatments by successive governments. These are some of those issues that are continuously expressed to those visiting Ministers, Foreign Ministry officials and every discussions held when government representatives arrive in these countries across the GCC.
- Voting Rights
Even though many countries have allowed to cast their votes for citizens living abroad in elections through various mechanisms. Successive governments have neglected this request continuously. One of the fundamental rights of every citizen.
- Schooling for their Children
The migrant workers community in the Middle East have been asking for the school admissions on a priority basis on their locality when they return to Sri Lanka. This request has been in the shelf for many decades. Many government sector employees and members of the defense forces have these privileges among others.
- University Entrance for Children
The university entrance for their children is a long-standing issue for all migrant workers. Once they complete their secondary education, higher education has been a long-standing issue. There are no university admissions in Sri Lankan Universities or there is no viable private universities established in Sri Lanka either. This prompts them to send them to Europe, Russia, China or Malaysia for higher studies. Along with the decision sends a big proportion of their foreign currency earnings too.
- The Issue of No Support for those who return from Abroad
There is no minimal support from any financial institution or government banks for these migrant workers when they return from abroad to at least start a business or small and medium scale industry. All Banks and Financial Institutions do road shows in middle east to grab their foreign currency, but when they return, no institution is ready to assist them. Even government banks don’t have a soft loan scheme as a bare minimum.
- The Role of the Foreign Employment Bureau
Over the Years, the Foreign Employment Bureau charges an annual Insurance fee from all migrant workers. The harassment of checking the passports at the airport entry points and the illusory look by those staff aside. Many workers do not know what benefits that this payment brings them. From more than a million workforce in the middle east itself, The Bureau earns nearly Rs. 4 billion a year. Are migrant workers getting any benefit from these funds?
The One and Only Benefit – The $ 1,000 Beggary Allowance
A $1,000 allowance per year for luggage. I must mention here about the only benefit the migrant worker gets. A beggary allowance. To claim this, every migrant worker goes through the most difficult plight at the hands of the customs officers when clearing the luggage. Even that is not spared, more than 90 percent of them end up giving bribes to clear their cargo. All this is while many smugglers go scot free at the same time.
All these are while the expatriate workers are not using any public service such as Hospitals, Schools or even any other service offered to the general public while paying the relevant taxes.
These burning issues will continue to burn and there is no light at the end of the tunnel unless strong policies are made looking at the country’s benefit and not political decisions. The same political policies have ruined the whole fabric of this nation since independence.