Business Times

Rights of migrant workers

While a lot of attention is being paid to the pension scheme for private sector workers with the government realizing that it just cannot bulldoze its way through the rights of the people, there is little or no focus on another as-important segment of the labour force – migrant workers.

With more than 1.5 million workers overseas not much is being spoken about the pension scheme for migrant workers, which has similar provisions to the other pension scheme and the same issues and concerns.

In the case of the state-controlled pension scheme for the private sector, trade unions representing workers and employers represented by the Employers Federation of Ceylon have been protesting and giving virtual hell to the government, picking on some serious problems in the scheme which puts workers at a huge disadvantage the way it has been structured.

The pressure backed by media focus saw the government roll back plans to debate the bill (including the one for migrant workers) in parliament on Wednesday with Treasury Secretary Dr P. B. Jayasundera agreeing to consider proposals from trade unions and employers and amend the bill if necessary. However there is clear evidence that the government once before went back on its word and the same could happen here again, even after the latest assurances. For example, in a newspaper advertisement on December 5, 2010, the government allayed what is called public misconceptions that the contribution from the worker and the employer is ‘an additional payment outside current contributions to the EPF’. The contribution of 4 %, it was categorically stated, would come out from the regular 12 %- 8% (employer/worker) contribution monthly to the EPF, and not as an additional payment. Now it has become an additional payment. Who is deceiving whom?

In the meantime, migrant workers – constantly wooed by the government as a potent force because of their foreign exchange earning capacity – unfortunately doesn’t enjoy the luxury of strong employers (in this case local job agents may fall into this category) or trade unions to protest strongly against the bill. Even rights groups working on their behalf have failed to see the dangers lurking with the ‘Overseas Employees Pension Benefits Fund’ and are groping in the dark over the issue, not realizing its consequences.

At the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) meeting this week chaired by Labour Minister Gamini Lokuge, whose responses to the concerns on the pension scheme to say the least has been no less than laughable, Dr Jayasundera has been critical of employers saying there has been discussion on the private sector pension scheme only to be told that no such thing has taken place. The combined force of employers and workers has knocked the wind of the sails of the government – particularly the Treasury Secretary - which is on the back-foot over the pension issue. Workers however are wary and don’t see anything substantive happening from these discussions and expect only some minor adjustments to the bill.

Migrant workers on the other hand don’t have even that kind of voice at the moment. Not a single statement, comment or voice of concern has been raised on their behalf – not even from the opposition which has been a pitiful force in parliament. Not a single opposition legislator thought it fit to object to the bill when it was presented in parliament earlier this month and woke up (which is usually the case) only when a hue and a cry was raised by workers, employers and the media. Days after a fundamental rights application was filed in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the bill, the opposition also opposes the scheme and says they are considering going to court!

Unlike the other scheme where workers are compelled to join, the pension scheme for migrant workers is a voluntary one. Yet it has some serious concerns. Consider this: A worker or member of the fund has to make a minimum payment of Rs 12,000 a year; such payments must be before reaching the age of 55 but the member can only draw a pension after reaching 65 years. What happens to those who retire at 60? There is no mention of how the pension is computed or how much one gets. The bill is also vague on how many years a worker has to contribute to receive a pension unlike the other bill which refers to a minimum 10 year period. It said workers must make a contribution for a minimum of two consecutive years or 24 months. However at the end of two years, the credit lying to the member is Rs 24,000 plus interest which could work out to a meagre sum per month and that too till all the money is exhausted.

Questions… questions… questions like in the pension bill for private sector workers which lie unanswered. The bill on migrant worker pensions is an eyewash dealing mostly with administrative issues like who is in charge of the fund, its management, fees to the managers and a vague explanation of contributions and nothing about how much one gets on retirement.

This is another captive fund for the cash-strapped government to dip into whenever required and not really a pension scheme. A ‘real’ pension scheme is where the recipient or his spouse gets it for life, which is not the case here.

Migrant workers are the backbone of the economy and a valuable source of foreign exchange earnings – so the government keeps saying ad nauseam – but fails to consult them on an important issue like this. Pensions for migrant workers like others are welcome but not the way it has been devised.

The government owes it to migrant workers. Treat them with respect particularly the women who make a lot of sacrifices and muster a lot of courage to earn for the family and the country. Don’t squander away their hard earned savings. That would amount to daylight robbery.

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