Address by Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha at the Symposium on the Updating the Operational Manual for Labour Welfare Sections of Sri Lanka Diplomatic Missions in Destination Countries, 18-20 September 2019, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Address by Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha at the Symposium on the Updating the Operational Manual for Labour Welfare Sections of Sri Lanka Diplomatic Missions in Destination Countries, 18-20 September 2019, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

One Country-One Team Approach to Protecting Migrant Workers: ‘Walking the Talk’

Hon. Minister of Foreign Employment,

Heads of Missions and Officers responsible for Sri Lankan Foreign Employees welfare in the Missions

ILO Country Director for Sri Lanka and team

Chairman/SLBFE and officials

and Staff of the Sri Lanka Mission in Malaysia which have helped manage this operation

At the outset, I wish to thank the Ministry of Telecommunication, Foreign Employment and Sports and the International Labour Organization (ILO), for organizing this timely Symposium as part of ILO’s project on ‘promoting decent work through good governance’ that has been running in Sri Lanka since 2011. I am particularly thankful to the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) for its partnership which has made it possible to bring together stakeholders for this event in Kuala Lumpur. Having worked closely with both organizations during my period from 2012-2018 in Geneva, I am pleased to be able to continue our efforts to further the interests of our migrants abroad.

I also want to congratulate the team which has been working on updating this Operational Manual for Labour Welfare. The document before us, has cast an important responsibility - to look into mainly the issues, concerns and interests of approximately 2.5 million of our population (over 10% of Sri Lanka’s population) of oversees workers largely in unskilled and semi-skilled categories mainly residing and working in the GCC. Compared to skilled professional categories, this group is the lifeline of Sri Lanka’s economy providing foreign exchange amounting to over USD 7 billion in 2018, accounting for 7.9% of the GDP, which is far above the Official Development Assistance (ODA) or Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

Invited for this symposium, are 16 frontline Missions where officers on secondment from the Ministries of Labour and Foreign Employment are serving under the leadership of the Head of Missions to cater to these migrant Sri Lankans. Different stakeholders have endeavoured to team up our efforts for a common purpose. Having said that I am fully in agreement that we cannot be complacent in the belief that a full-fledged mechanism and efforts are in place to address the comprehensive and cross cutting issue of managing migration in Sri Lanka, and that we have a sound migration governance structure.

The topic I have been asked to speak on today is ‘one country-one team approach to protecting migrant workers’. That is very aspirational. However, in order to make it more tangible, I want to add to it the 3 words- ’Walking the Talk’.

This will give us the opportunity, while taking stock of what we have in our laws and  manuals, and through our structures continuing effort to evolve a ‘whole of government approach’ in managing migration, to also focus on how we are in effect implementing them, and where we are having difficulty, and the reasons for falling short.

To this end, in my view we need to take a few concrete steps;

First,To identify our strengthsas a country of origin, particularly a country of outward labour migration

Second,to assess the mechanisms in place to address the weaknesses and challenges 

Third,to look into what opportunitieswe have in the context of regional and international developments in the field of migration governance, where we can on the one hand contribute through our experiences and at the same time harness benefits to further enhance our capacity to respond to circular migration.

As it has been said many a times by the experts in the field, migration is no longer a fiction or a phenomenon. It is an integral, and un-stoppable part of humanity. In order to reap the benefits of human mobility and diversity it brings into the host societies, the only option is to better manage migration. How can we do it while maintaining the right balance between the sovereign right of individual States to protect its borders and to decide whom to admit and whom to keep out or their territory and the rules that govern their stay, as opposed to humanitarian considerations regarding those who seeks international protection.

In my opinion this is the first test of how we respond as ‘one country- one team’.

As said before, our strengths to do so are many.

  • As a country we have identified migration a priority and that is the very reason many strong policy directives, institutional mechanisms are being put in place. This includes the National Labour Migration Policy –where the Sri Lanka Missions too have got involved in developing the Labour Manuel, which we plan to update following this symposium.
  • We have benefitted from the support and goodwill of many partners including the UN system. This is particularly important at this juncture where the UN seeks to deliver as ONE, in finding synergies and coordination among individual agencies operating at country level. With the Global Compact on Migration (GCM) in operation as the first ever voluntary framework on migration endorsed by an overwhelming majority of UN members, the Global Migration Network led by IOM will allow best possible coordination among the expert UN agencies at country level. I will elaborate more on what opportunities this new development in the UN mechanism brings to us a little later.
  • With the free education system we have a very literate work force who can be easily trained to become a skilled work force, thereby finding a niche in the competitive labour market. In this context, apart from catering to the routine and daily work of addressing grievances and providing consular support, all overseas Missions attending this forum needs to look out for market opportunities and trends. I believe Hon. Minister, this is an area where we have not paid sufficient attention to, but an important aspect, if we intend to upgrade our labour market potential. It will not only open up better paid jobs, but also guarantee jobs where safety, security and dignity of our workers is secured.
  • We have made considerable strides in achieving the SDGs, particularly addressing Goal 8 on enhancing sustainable economic growth by employment and decent work, where the ILO takes the leading role. Sri Lanka is an active partner in Alliance 8.7 on preventing forced labour and modern slavery. While we have moved onto become a upper Middle Income country, the strengths in ensuring decent work and labour standards will be a strong point for Sri Lanka. Further, working on SDG 10.7 on safe, orderly and responsible migration through well managed migration policies, helps protect our own work forces in receiving countries.
  1. Getting the Colombo end right

While we strive to further improve our potential, we need to be self-critical on the weaker areas to which we should have paid more attention, in order to better address the potential threats or challenges in the field of migration. For example, if I may dwell on the current institutions that deals with migration, it can be better explained as a “cobweb of policies” designed and operated more in silos by a variety of national agencies. In the 2018 Migration Governance Index conducted by the IOM and the Economist Intelligence unit, it was noted that important aspects of migration governance are being handled in isolation. Outbound migration and inbound migration are handled by two different Ministries, while border management and law enforcement related to irregular migrants as well as overall data management on migration are somewhat disconnected and distanced from the former  two agencies. Private sector and civil society are taking part in the migration related activities on their own volition, at best joining government efforts on an ad hoc basis. When it comes to refugees we take it on a case by case basis, mostly the responsibility lies on my Ministry, as there is no dedicated Agency to handle the subject.

It is my submission to the Hon. Minister, who plays an active role in bringing better governance to migration, that Sri Lanka needs to address the issue of migration in a holistic manner, so we get the breadth and depth of the issues. These include;

- matching the education and vocational training to the job market needs

- The issue of scarcity of labour in certain semi-skilled sectors in the local market

- looking for integrated mechanism and regulations in managing irregular migration into and from Sri

- particularly in preventing human smuggling and trafficking in persons

- strengthening research and data to find out future opportunities

- addressing the remaining needs of the  people displaced internally etc, as this aspect is not covered
either in the Global Compact on Migrants or Refugees, but left to individual Member States. 

  1. Leveraging Regional and Global Processes

When we operate as a ‘one country, one team’, we will undoubtedly be able to send a strong signal to our partners in the region and to the international community on what we could bring to the table where much of the discourse on migration governance is shaping up. I will share with you several such opportunities, based on my personal experience as the Permanent Representative in Geneva, where did make use of the opportunities that were on offer, to better serve our hard working migration community.

  1. During Sri Lanka Chairmanship from October 2013 to April 2017, we managed to build synergies into the Colombo Process (CP), which is a Regional Consultative Process of 13 Asian Labour originating countries, mainly to the GCC. You could call all of them as ‘competitors’ for the same labour market. Yet, Sri Lanka managed to find coherence by bringing pragmatism into the process, by addressing issues common to all and developing tangible actions. It resulted in developing both substantive and administrative improvements to the CP and drawing attention of the receiving countries and development partners like SDC.

As you will hear more details later today during the presentation by Samantha Jayasuriya, who was DPR in Geneva in my time, on ‘Sri Lanka’s commitment to the regional and international processes’, let me stop by stating that by playing as a team, under Sri Lanka’s Chair the  CP managed to address five key thematic areas through expert working groups, namely Skills recognition and development, Pre-departure orientation, ethical recruitment, remittances, and labour market research. The success of the TAWG led the CP to adopt four more new areas of cooperation - on SDG, Consular support, Protection of Women and migrant health. The CP Technical Support Unit was established in Colombo with the support of SDC to service these TAWGs and to maintain its website.

  1. As a result of our proactive leadership and collective efforts the Abu Dhabi Dialogue (ADD)came on board to support Sri Lanka with several pilot initiatives particularly on skills recognition, PDO and in using advanced technologies to improve the recruitment processes. Sri Lanka was also invited to take the Chair of the ADD in 2017, which we will be relinquishing next month.
  2. The collaborative efforts within CP and ADD went further on. Sri Lanka as the Chair of the ADD was able to engage in the GCMas a front runner, including by moderating one of its panels on labour migration.
  3. We also took all opportunities made available, to share our best practices including in the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), the IDM, as well as in partnering with the Alliance 8.7 to name a few.

As a result, within a few years, Sri Lanka was able to carve out for itself a leadership role in the international arena on migration related issues, and to attract considerable support of IOM, ILO and SDC.

As the Global Network on Migration takes shape and the follow up and review process of the GCM comes full swing, we should be ready to take our fair share to be in the forefront, rather than be on the defence in the wake of what the world winds of migration brings. This exercise of putting together an updated labour manual through the consultation of all stakeholders is a step in the right direction. Yet, we should aim for both the low hanging fruits, as well as high up targets if we really believe in operating as a ‘One Country-One team’ for the better governance of migration flows.

  1. Within Missions : ‘Walking the Talk’

Many of you work very hard and I want to assure you that it is deeply appreciated at all levels. I would dare say that while much of the good work you do, particularly out in Missions goes unnoticed, it is the very few instances of difficulties faced by our migrants, mostly due to reasons beyond your control, which gets media headlines. Having said, I must however concede that there are both structural and operational shortcomings that can be improved, that would make our delivery ore effective.

As my theme suggests, we speak of a ‘one country-one team approach to protecting migrant workers’. However, as in Colombo, in Missions too, we often work in silos. Often we are less concerned about what is right, efficient or sustainable, but that we preserve our respective autonomy of doing it, which often converts to seeking the credit or benefit from doing something. That is why it is imperative that we adopt a ‘Whole of Government’ approach to this issue.

  1. Although we have separate labour sections for only 16 Missions/Posts, all our 67 Missions/Posts carry out work related to consular and labour welfare.Hence the Operational Manual should be applicable for all officers dealing with labour welfare measures attached to Sri Lanka Diplomatic Missions.
  2. Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions exist to serve all Sri Lankans. Specifically, with respect to migrant workers, regardless of whether they are regular or irregular. Therefore, we should address grievances of all migrant workers equally and assist them, irrespective of whether they are registered with the SLBFE or otherwise.

iii. The Missions should focus more on the protection of the rights and the welfare of female domestic workers, who are the most vulnerable segment of the migrant workers. Handling of migrant workers, particularly female domestic workers, who have not gone through the SLBFE for foreign employment, has been a challenging task for some Heads of Mission in the Middle East, as the SLBFE do not take the responsibility other than providing food and medicine in the safe house. There is no solution for this issue even in the draft updated Operational Manuel. This must be corrected. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes to find a solution to this issue with the support of SLBFE and the Ministry of Foreign Employment, if need be by jointly seeking funds for this purpose from the Treasury.

  1. The Missions, under the direct supervision of the HOMs, should also take maximum possible initiatives/follow up to protect the interests of alleged victims of human trafficking, irrespective of their status whether legal migrant worker or not.
  2. I see our citizens working in these countries in diverse capacities as an asset and in effect ‘Ambassadors’. Particularly those working in households, are an advertisement to what Sri Lanka stands. Many families leave their young children and elderly parents in the care of Sri Lankans. How our people conduct themselves, can be leveraged not only in terms of good will and job opportunities, but also in attracting tourists, business and cultural interest to Sri Lanka.
  3. In parallel, in handling the welfare matters of migrant workers, we must also be conscious of the sensitivities of the Sri Lankan community living in the host countries, as to how the Missions handle the migrant workers’ issue, particularly of those who become stranded, as the same reach Colombo bringing disrepute to the Mission and to the Government.


I believe the State sector, private sector actors, international organizations and civil society organizations should work together and share skills, resources, and strengths.  Therefore,  joint planning and coordination maximizes resources, improves the effectiveness of responses, and fosters trust between stakeholders.

Even within the government sector, coordination of officials, who have first-hand knowledge of the specific needs and challenges faced by migrants, will improve the effectiveness of efforts to protect migrants in countries. This is why, it is essential that we stop working in cylos and work together within Missions/Posts as ‘one team’. I want to ensure the Minister, that the Foreign Ministry and its Mission network if fully committed to overcoming this impediment.

I wish to conclude my speech with the suggestion that once we finalize and operationalize this manual, we form a committee to monitor the proper implementation of the manual, on a periodic basis. This must be done both at the Colombo level between the Ministry of Foreign Employment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as it must by the labour sections in Missions/Posts and with the Heads of Mission/Post.

I thank you and wish the symposium great success. ( ENDS)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Please follow and like us: