Sri Lankan workers toiling in the Middle East and a few other countries, who also remit around USD 10 billion in foreign exchange annually, are being treated as unwanted, low class citizens of the country following the COVID-19 crisis, foreign employees complained.

Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) of Sri Lanka noted that the foreign employment industry, which is bringing valuable foreign exchange into the country, is now being getting step motherly treatment without relief measures.

The Association is requesting the government to grant a six-month moratorium on loans and a six-month working capital loans at 4 percent interest while extending the relief measures given to the tourism industry to foreign employment agencies as well, a leading member of ALFEA said.

In case the country’s foreign employment agencies were to go bankrupt, ALFEA Committee Member cautioned that it could jeopardise the welfare of Sri Lanka’s migrant workers, as these agencies play a crucial role in resolving the issues faced by the migrant workers in their host countries.

The ALFEA members pointed out that if not for the country’s foreign employment agencies, there would have been over 300,000 migrant workers forced to return to the country, as their employment contracts were to expire during the period, which could have exhausted the country’s healthcare sector.

Foreign employment agencies played a critical role in extending or renewing the work contracts of Sri Lankan migrant workers in Gulf countries, when the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread globally, officials said.

The contract period of 300,000 to 350,000 migrant workers was to expire soon and agency authorities were able to negotiate their contracts with their respective employers successfully.

Only around 50,000 of them are waiting to return to Sri Lanka now, he elaborated.

Further, the association warned that the country could face a USD 11 billion shortfall in remittance inflows, over the next two years, as Sri Lankans leaving for overseas employment are expected to decline to 50,000 this year, compared to around 200,000 departures last year.

According to the ALFEA, 40,000 Sri Lankans left for overseas employment, prior to the closure of Bandaranaike International Airport and they project further 10,000 departures before the end of this year.

Therefore, he stressed that stabilisation of the country’s foreign employment agencies is crucial to promote and attract new businesses, to overcome the expected drastic reduction in departures this year.  

Meanwhile, he noted that the demand for foreign labour is recovering in Gulf countries and in Eastern Europe, which has become the latest destination for Sri Lankan migrant workers.

However, the current COVID-19 related travel restrictions and quarantine measures as well high air fares have created a challenging environment for the industry.  

Despite the current challenges, the ALFEA members were optimistic that the foreign employment industry would be one of the first industries to recover, when the border-control measures are lifted.