Giving a voice to Sri Lanka’s migrant workers

Sea-faring migrant workers are an emergent labour movement in Sri Lanka

The complexities facing Sri Lanka’s unions as they attempt to organise, represent, protect, provide a voice for, and respond on behalf of, a globally mobile labour force of citizens, is the focus of an USAID-funded, Solidarity Center/ Rutgers partnership for the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing’s (WOW) and Griffith Asia Institute’s (GAI)Dr Samanthi J Gunawardana, and colleague Associate Professor Janice Fine (Rutgers).

The project team is working to understand the challenges Sri Lankan unions face within a complex economy of transient labour, and an employment relations system that cannot accommodate such mobility. Why then do Sri Lankan’s migrate?

“Migrant workers…go to…countries like Cyprus, the Middle East, Singapore, Africa and Australia…on a temporary basis for the sole purpose of employment”, Dr Gunawardana notes. By consequence “migrant worker remittances outstrip international aid flows in Sri Lanka:…8.2 per cent [contributes] to [their] Gross Domestic Product and 35 per cent [to] the island’s total foreign exchange earnings”.

There is however a flip side to these economic benefits. In addition to the political impact for both Sri Lanka and its estimated 1.5 million migrant workers─who do not retain voting rights as a ‘migrant’, nor receive them in their host country─they are also often exploited and marginalised: in a host country, instances of xenophobia or simply their migrant status, can be the cause.

The unskilled jobs they find themselves in, further magnifies the absence of host-country employment protections because labour of this type, such as domestic or construction work, can be aligned as ethnic- or caste-appropriate and is therefore, devalued.

This research brings to the fore the web of issues and barriers Sri Lanka’s trade unions face in their response to the employment protection and workplace entitlement violations of their globally mobile constituencies.

“Workers’ host countries usually don’t have unions. In Sri Lanka, traditional unions have put [their interests] in the ‘too hard’ basket. Where some NGOs and trade unions are working together to lobby the Sri Lankan government in the hope that [change will] filter through to host countries,… community organisations in the workers’ home villages—often women’s rights activists─still remain the first point of contact for violated workers, or families on their behalf”, says Dr Gunawardana.

Union organisation around three emergent labour movements was also the focus of a 3 September seminar delivered by Samanthi: those of the seafaring-migrant worker—governed by a different set of laws each time their ship enters a new country’s territory; workers within Sri Lanka’s unsustainable plantation industry; and the trend of the latter in joining a third labour movement: that of the often high volumes of (mainly) countrywomen moving into domestic work.