Accessing Labour Markets Abroad: 6 Key Challenges for Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has set itself a target of increasing migrant remittances to US$10 billion by the end of 2016 from US$6.4billion in 2013, and a key element in achieving this figure will be altering the profile of migrant workers and labour markets abroad. This blog highlights the key challenges facing Sri Lanka in accessing labour markets abroad, based on a forthcoming IPS study on ’Accessing New Employment Markets Abroad’ under the Meeting the Development Challenges of Migration (MED_MIG) project.


Diversification of Markets and Occupations


The Middle East is currently the largest foreign employment market for Sri Lankan migrants, with over 94% of Sri Lankan workers employed in the region (Figure 1). According to data from the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), many migrant workers from the country occupy low-skilled positions. In 2012, housemaids and unskilled workers made up 64% of migrants from the country, while skilled and semi-skilled workers constituted only 25% of all foreign employment. In the context of Sri Lanka’s concentration of labour markets (i.e., Middle East) and skill categories (housemaids and unskilled), the National Labor Migration Policy stated that, ‘new overseas markets and opportunities must be explored and promoted. This will ensure the promotion and development of employment opportunities outside Sri Lanka for Sri Lankans.’


“Evidence shows that, low-skilled workers are more vulnerable compared to skilled workers and professionals and subject to human rights violations”


As of late, the government has also been encouraging the migration of more skilled migrants as opposed to housemaids and unskilled workers. Evidence shows that, low-skilled workers are more vulnerable compared to skilled workers and professionals and subject to human rights violations, including breach of labour rights, harassment and abuse at the work place. Consequently, the government has been promoting and supporting ‘the migration of skilled men and women to secure work environments where the protection of fundamental human rights at work is upheld to the highest standards’.


Figure 1: Departures by Region and Skill Category, 2012

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 Source: Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, 2012, Annual Statistical Handbook


Six Challenges in Accessing New Labour Markets


1. Language proficiency


The forthcoming IPS study based on stakeholder interviews with recruitment agents and government officials reveals that a large proportion of unskilled or semi-skilled Sri Lankan migrants possess comparatively inadequate English language skills, which is the primary medium of communication for foreign migrants. As an agent observed, ‘even labourers, they need English. If he has a stomachache he has to [be able to] tell properly; otherwise they might be treated for something else. So basic English is a must.’ A half of all the agencies that were interviewed claimed that this creates a host of barriers and restricts foreign employment opportunities.


2. Rules and regulations governing recruitment of migrants in Sri Lanka


Though the rules and regulations that are in place are intended for the protection and welfare of the migrants and their families, it appears that this has made the recruitment process a barrier to the growth of the foreign employment industry. Interviews revealed that some of the rules and regulations governing the recruitment of migrant workers in Sri Lanka appear unnecessary – for example, irrelevant documentation requirements must be reviewed and streamlined. For example, females who want to go abroad as housemaids are required to get the permission of their spouse while professionals/skilled workers have to undergo generic training which is not specific to their jobs. So, rules and regulations need to be reviewed to simplify and streamline the recruitment process.


3. Job orders outside traditional markets


Licensed foreign employment agents play a significant role in the labour migration process, but most of them have little or no contacts outside the traditional market – the Middle East. Thus, they have difficulty in ensuring that the job orders that they receive and potential employers from other regions are genuine and legitimate, which prevent them from pursuing new opportunities. Almost all agencies interviewed for the study called for assistance from the relevant authorities in this regard.


4. Salaries abroad


Increasingly, salaries offered for unskilled and skilled workers by some labour receiving countries are not attractive compared to salaries they would receive in Sri Lanka. Moreover, considering other matters such as opportunity cost of sacrificing family life in Sri Lanka, there is little or no incentive in some cases for Sri Lankans to seek foreign employment.According to an agent interviewed, the salary offered must be thrice the wage in Sri Lanka, for there to be an incentive to go abroad for employment. Both traditional markets such as the Middle East and some of the emerging Asian Markets such as Malaysia offer inadequate wages to Sri Lankan migrants, particularly for unskilled and semi-skilled workers and this has made it harder for recruitment agencies from fulfilling the available vacancies.


5. Preferences


Findings reveal that certain preferences of some Sri Lankan migrants act as a barrier to recruitment and fulfillment of job orders. Sri Lankans are reluctant to go to some markets despite the availability of job vacancies due to negative publicity regarding these countries in the media, and also due to restrictions on life styles in countries such as Saudi Arabia. Instead, they prefer to go to developed markets like the EU where obtaining visas are difficult. The study also found that preferences of recruitment agencies and employers abroad can affect the vacancies on offer to Sri Lankans as well. As a result of poor performance or misbehaviour at the place of work, recruiters and employers in destination countries can sometimes hold a negative image of the suitability of Sri Lankan workers for employment. This serves to decrease the recruitment opportunities available for Sri Lankan migrants.


6. Lack of capacity to supply required man-power


Recruitment agencies revealed that there is a lack of manpower in the country, and that the present skill mismatch adversely affects the competitiveness of Sri Lankan migrants. This prevents them from reaching non- traditional markets, creating more constraints to recruitment opportunities. Sri Lanka has not been able to supply the numbers of workers in mid-professional, skilled and semi-skilled job categories, for whom there was demand from various countries. For instance, in 2009, there was demand for 784,212 positions from all job categories, but Sri Lanka could only supply persons for 247,119 positions.


Lack of unity within the industry, Sri Lanka being uncompetitive compared to other labour sending countries in the region, lack of marketing/promotion to penetrate new markets, bureaucracy, high cost of recruitment, difficulties in obtaining working visas, rules and regulations in labour receiving countries restricting recruitment were also identified as other challenges affecting the country from accessing labour markets abroad.


Way Forward


The scope for addressing some external challenges is limited, as Sri Lanka has little or no power to affect changes in labour receiving countries with regard to rules and regulations, salaries, visas, etc. In this context, more focus should be given to deal with issues within Sri Lanka by improving the relevancy and quality of training programmes, using better marketing strategies, streamlining recruitment processes and enhancing cooperation within the industry. In terms of training, much more attention needs to be given in improving spoken English amongst migrants, which could be done through establishing training institutes in rural areas, upgrading the training course of SLBFE, and conducting courses to develop skills that meet the requirements of destination countries and the job. Further, marketing needs to be done to alter the negative image and attitude surrounding migrant workers and the Middle East, with due consideration given to the important role they play in the economy. This can be done through conducting exhibitions, attending job fairs abroad to promote a more positive image of manpower from Sri Lanka while more support needs to be extended to the SLBFE for it to carry out marketing and promotional activities Also, recruitment for foreign employment could be facilitated through simplification of rules and regulations, removing unnecessary requirements, wider application and usage of IT in the recruitment process to reduce the paperwork/documentation involved, etc. There is also a dire need for the stakeholders to come together for the betterment of the industry, which is lacking at the moment.


(This article was co-authored by Janaka Wijayasiri, Dharshani Premaratne and Keshini Sritharan as part of the MED_MIG project and is based on a forthcoming IPS publication on the topic. For more articles from the special ‘Managing Migration’ Series on this blog, visit here – 

Cover image courtesy