The social costs and economic benefits of international migration have caused uneven national development in Sri Lanka for decades. It has pejoratively earned Sri Lanka the name of ‘country of housemaids’ in its disoriented vision to be a nascent Singapore. Since the end of the civil war, the promise of ‘the good life’ has waned considerably for temporary labour migrants as their families experienced no substantial improvement in access to housing, education, and day-to-day consumption. Bearing the onslaught of travel bans and unemployment, COVID-19 hit the final nail in the coffin, draining the savings and dignity of working-class lives whilst the coastal elite speculate recovery in the face of recurrent government failure.
Creating the rural migrant
The exploitative phenomenon of the modern migrant worker should be and can be traced to the model of the open economy from the late 1970s. However, a closer inspection of the last decade suffices to explain the more recent deterioration of migrants’ well-being. The concentration of developmental capital in the historical population nexus of the Western Province after 2009 is in stark contrast to the predominantly rural origin of migrant workers. Understanding that the political investment strategy in the Southern Province produced misplaced infrastructure and the nation’s economic plan emulated post-industrialism, internal migration to ‘the megapolis’ satisfied only so many unskilled workers until wages started falling. However, the liberal agency of the international migrant neither pushed the worker to emancipation nor pulled the domestic capitalist class out of the economic picture.
To be sure, the precarious terms of employment continue to alienate Sri Lankan workers in host societies abroad. What was disturbingly novel is that the governing elite of the sending state, who hold ties to and are at times synonymous with the business elite, had a vested interest in encouraging this human suffering.
Without the remittances that accounted for $6.7 billion in foreign earnings in 2019, surpassing the combined total earnings of the next five sources, Sri Lanka would not have been able to service its maturing external debt at a stable and competitive exchange rate. More departures to the Middle East meant more non-essential imports could be sustained above the existing dependency on crude oil. The underdevelopment of production in the rural sector and the silence over the immense contribution of migrants to past economic stability prevailed cyclically with the urban concentration of capital and the decline of the redistributing welfare state. The benefactors of this regressive economic model are none other than the capitalist comprador class that has extravagant tastes and more time to indulge in their cosmopolitan identities.
Exploitation in migrant hardships
Whilst such a foreign exchange buffer could have been utilized differently to set the nation on an ambitious program to resolve energy dependency and prioritize full employment over digital and financial modernization, there is more to exploitation domestically than the lost potential. Given that temporary labor migration is fueled by low human capital, degraded conditions of local employment and socio-economic marginalization, migrant workers are both vulnerable to the deceptions of private recruitment agencies and the effects of the demonstrations of liberal individualism. Amidst the bureaucratic hustle to obtain the mandated Family Background Report (FBR) clearance, Sri Lankan migrant workers are susceptible to many malpractices, such as extortion by sub-agents, inflated recruitment fees, and misinformation regarding wages and conditions abroad. Indebtedness at home and ill-preparedness for the journey ahead cause much insecurity, shame, and anxiety. The FBR amplifies these shades of exploitation disproportionately against female workers. The overall recruitment process not only institutionalizes exploitation but also constructs the image of the temporary worker as unencumbered, dependent, and paradoxically successful.
The exploitation behind this symbolic success is far greater in view of the peer pressure amongst alienated migrant workers to demonstrate earned status. The subsequent expenditure on status goods, such as jewelry and clothing, is an instance of tension in the migrant psyche as well as the migrant’s family. Overworked in distant places where the language is foreign, and the food is unfamiliar, there is an element of coping when retained money is spent on locally recognized goods for oneself amidst fellow workers after most earnings have been remitted to estranged family members. In this liberal notion of caring for both the self and the family, there are patriarchal misunderstandings and the prioritization of short-term gratification over long-term alleviation of poverty. The ruling class ideals of status have here disaggregated migrant wealth in separate individuals.
The present predicament
The financial difficulties of low-skilled temporary migrants in the deluge of the COVID-19 pandemic are numerous and heartbreaking, to say the least. Those who chose to remain, or simply could not leave, faced pay cuts, delays in payment and loss of savings as they were financially stretched by rent, basic expenses, and indebted families at home. These were the effects of lockdowns, factory closures and the economic fallout in oil-exporting countries that saw responsibility in protecting and economically stimulating only citizens, native workers, and local businesses. Little had the repatriated considered their fate in Sri Lanka. Escaping the squalid and cramped labour camps in the Gulf, many returned to being isolated in overcrowded quarantine centers and then outright unemployment. They joined the ranks of poverty amidst political indecision and corruption with restricted travel between provinces, irregular and half-hearted lockdown measures, and an exorbitant price hike in food and other commodities. Weathering these circumstances through accumulated savings and pawned jewelry, it is not far-fetched to think that their distress equals the more visible homelessness of present times.
The captivating future
As farmers burn effigies of the president and teachers agitate for equitable pay, the domestic plight of the migrant worker has gathered new potential for reform and revolution for their betterment in rural and urban contexts. As Sri Lankans converge in the mindset that the state representing the people should fundamentally change in principles and values, temporary migrants have a more significant claim to it by their long exploitation.
Ekanayake, A & Amirthalingam, K 2021, ‘The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Sri Lankan migrants in Qatar’, Comparative Migration Studies, vol. 9, no. 38, pp. 1-20.
International Labour Organization (ILO) 2018, Sri Lankan Female Migrant Workers and the Family Background Report, ILO in Sri Lanka.
Gardner, A 2010, ‘Labour Camps in the Gulf States’, Middle East Institute, February 2, viewed 6 November 2021, https://education.mei.edu/content/labor-camps-gulf-states
Withers, M 2019, Sri Lanka’s remittance economy: a multiscalar analysis of migration-underdevelopment, Routledge Series on Asian Migration, no. 5, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, London; New York. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429453557