UN compensation for Kuwait workers Rs 3.2 B on migrant worker welfare
By Shaahidah Riza
Deputy Minister for Foreign Employment Manusha Nanayakkara stated that the balance of more than Rs 3.2 billion remitted by the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) to pay migrant workers who worked in Kuwait in 1990 has been put to good use. In an interview with Ceylon Today he went on to note that many of these migrant workers were paid the due compensation, however, there were many who didn't come forward to claim compensation. Due to the lapse of several years, these workers cannot be identified; however, the monies which are still deposited in the Sri Lanka Bureau for Foreign Employment (SLBFE) accounts are presently being used to address the issues of Sri Lankan migrant workers, when working in host countries.
Excerpts of the interview:
Sri Lanka entered a bilateral agreement with the International Organisation of Migration. Can you elaborate further on this agreement?
A. We have fostered an established understanding with the IOM. We had several discussions with them. We reviewed the work we had done so far with regard to migration and we have also spoken about a training programme for SLBFE officers. We also spoke about internship programmes within the IOM, which can be awarded to Sri Lanka.
Presently the IOM is engaged in many programmes in Sri Lanka. We discussed about the progress of these programmes, as well.
The IOM is pleased with Sri Lanka's contribution to the Abu Dhabi Dialogue. Sri Lanka is the chair for the ABU Dhabi Dialogue and we have made major contributions to it. They exchanged suggestions and views with regard to Sri Lanka's contribution to the migration sector. They expect more migration related projects which ought to be finalized within this year. Currently, we are focusing on a concept titled 'Healthy Migration' which focuses on creating a sustainable and holistically beneficial trend in all aspects pertaining to migration. The Abu Dhabi Dialogue was held in Bangkok.
The Government stated that a new insurance scheme will be introduced to migrant workers. Has it been introduced yet?
A. These insurance schemes are custom made for each country. It has now been introduced to those who migrate as workers to the UAE. So far we have only started in one country; it is also because the country in question requested it to be so. It is an insurance which has to be obtained from there. It is the same scheme from the Sri Lanka Insurance.
What is special about this scheme?
A. the migrant workers get a higher compensation from that scheme than from the local insurers.
What about the minimum wage aspect?
A. It has been implemented and is presently functioning. We have made the minimum wage to be USD300, and but some sectors find it problematic, and wants to increase it to USD 350. In a factory environment, the minimum wage does not convert into the basic salary. The basic salary is far less than USD 300. However their take-home-salary is more than USD 500 to 700. We have allowed factory workers to increase their minimum wage from USD 300 to 350. However this scheme will change next year.
Your ministry spoke about creating welfare programmes to facilitate children of migrant workers. There are claims that these programmes have not been properly established?
A. On the contrary, there are a lot of welfare programmes that are presently underway. In fact on Friday we awarded scholarships to those children. This scholarship scheme was established in 1996, and it has been developing since. Throughout the years we have spent more than Rs 700 million on these children. We also provide monetary grants to these children when they get pass examinations: Grade Five Scholarship, Ordinary Level and the Advanced Level. However, the incumbent Government has implemented a new programme as well. Every Divisional Secretariat has three divisional officers who are in charge of migrant workers in the respective areas. It is mandatory for each of these officers to look into the affairs of the children of migrant workers, whom they have been allotted. They maintain records for these children. They have to liaise with the school these children attend and have to communicate with the respective school on behalf of the children. They have to adhere to all of these and compile a substantive report which has to be sent to the Colombo office. Majority of these children do not have a parent living with them. Therefore, if there is something lacking and their welfare is affected the divisional officers have to look into the issues.
There have been several issues pertaining to unauthorized foreign employment agencies. It was reported in the media that the SLBFE lacks investigative officers for the purpose of detecting unauthorized agencies and to conduct raids. Is there a problem?
A. There are registered agencies in the SLBFE. However, frauds and corruption do not take place through these agencies. It generally takes place through persons who engage in foreign employment placements. Sometimes they are organized as a company or they do it on an individual basis. However, if there are any misdemeanours, that are connected to registered agencies the SLBFE will swiftly detect it and take necessary action. There are many who are not registered with the SLBFE. They collect funds from unassuming people who seek to go abroad and deceive them. Many of these acts are done by sub agents. We try our best to detect these and take necessary legal action against them. But, yes there is truth in the statement that we lack investigative officers. We have a separate investigation unit comprised of police officers. However, that is not enough. This unit is overwhelmed with the workload, this is one of the main reasons why they cannot commit time or resources to commence investigations with regard to all of those who commit fraud and corruption. At the same time, we don't get much information about these unauthorized agencies. Many who want to be a migrant worker try to do so through illegal means. We have legally prohibited women who are mothers of children under five years to leave abroad for employment. The migrant workers have to register first with the SLBFE and go through a rigorous training process. This is mandatory. However there are many who avoid these and opt to use illegal means to go abroad. People are complacent till they experience a problem, only then do we get to know about these fraudsters.
What kind of support does the SLBFE get from the Government to address these issues?
A. we do not have any issues pertaining to funding. We just need to increase our staff. The SLBFE has adequate funding. We only need to improve the recruiting process of the SLBFE. We have prioritized the expansion the investigation unit.
There are claims that the Sri Lankan Government has still not paid compensation to the domestic workers who worked in Kuwait in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Apparently the Sri Lanka SLBFE was still holding on to a balance of more than Rs 3.2 billion from money remitted by the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) to pay them. The media alleged that this was a human rights violation. Can you shed light on this?
A. during that time, we identified all those who should be compensated and made the necessary compensation payments. We couldn't pay those who didn't come forward seeking compensation at that time. At that time the SLBFE paid compensation to all the migrant workers who were brought down from Kuwait. There are instances where certain migrant workers did not come forward seeking compensation. Identifying them now is rather complex due to the lapse of so many years. It is very hard to detect these people. However, the funds are still in the country, deposited in the SLBFE accounts. We use this money for welfare purposes. There are many other domestic workers who are subjected to conflict in their host countries and return to Sri Lanka without a proper insurance scheme. We use the money to see to their needs as well.
You were formerly a Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalist. Now you are with the Government. There were two Deputy Ministers who gave up their position in Government to join the Joint Opposition citing reason pertaining to policy and that the Government is not keeping to its promise of adhering to good governance. They also claim that many other Deputy Ministers would join the JO. Will you be one of them?
A. No, I do not intend to do so. People may say that many would leave the Government but I do not have such an intention. I take my party-Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)'s stand to work as part of a Unity Government. That is not going to change. I will be compliant only with decisions taken by the Party.
There is a case filed against you with regard to making comments to tarnish the image of the Prime Minister. What is the status of that?
A. That case has not yet concluded. It is still being deliberated in the Courts. I have still not been given a calling date.
There are claims that the SLBFE's involvement in the North and East is far less than in other districts. Is that so?
A. we have a branch in the North and East. However, there is a large number of people who want to go abroad to work in the East. At the same time there are many sub agents who are in operation there. Therefore we have several problems there. We have travelled to all parts in the East to resolve these issues. At the same time the SLBFE office in the East is a high functioning one.
Another accusation is that the SLBFE officers in the North and East don't speak Tamil in order to serve the Tamil speaking majority there. Is this true?
A. On the contrary, the officers there are very fluent in Tamil. Most of the officers are Muslims and Tamils. The divisional officers recruit people for the SLBFE in the North and East from the region, so the SLBFE officers know the people they are serving well and also speak the same language. There is no communication gap.
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