The Coolest Blue Bicycle In Wadi Kabir

“Where are you from?”

It seems like an elementary question, but the answer is perhaps not as easy as it seems. “An Indian who has grown up in Oman”, is my standard reply. It has been the simplest way to describe that it was not one, but two nations which have had a sizeable influence on my cultural identity. India, as overwhelmingly vast as it is chaotic, with memories of dosais and piping hot sambar, discussing Beat literature under the neem trees by the college canteen, and watching wild elephants galumphing over the tea estates with my grandfather when on holiday. Oman, on the other hand, a smaller country of 4 million people- with aquamarine beaches where I first swam with sea turtles, where my parents got me my first bicycle (which was navy blue and the coolest bicycle in Wadi Kabir), and where I learned how to drive.

These two nations I know as home, as is the case with many countries in South Asia and the Gulf, are not as far apart as they may seem, possessing a rich history of linkages in both, trade and migration. My own family migrated during the Gulf oil boom of the 80’s- which resulted in the ripening of labour market demand for an assortment of skill types, and thereafter, heightened migration from South Asia into the Gulf States. If someone were to ask me whether I personally benefited from migration, the general answer would be yes. I believe much of this experience boils down to one overarching factor: I had the privilege of a great education, something that the socioeconomically disadvantaged are most often denied. This meant better job prospects, interesting work environments, better wages, greater awareness, and access to a generally positive migration experience.

The subject of labour migration has hence always been extremely close to my heart. If the entire migration cycle is safe, from pre-depature, all the way up to arrival and local integration, it is my belief that there could be benefits for all parties concerned: the migrant themselves, the ‘labour sending’ country, and the country of destination.

During my internship at the ILO, a lot of my time has therefore been dedicated to labour migration, and the links between migration, forced labour and human trafficking. The topic, exceedingly pertinent on a global scale, is just as relevant here in Sri Lanka, where the GDP contribution of migrant workers overseas via remittances to their dependents back home, is a pretty sizeable 8.9%.

On Low-Skilled Migrant Workers

One of the first things I discovered during my internship here was that the gender makeup of the outbound migrant population seems to be shifting. Although initially, the split between Sri Lankan men and women migrating overseas (largely to the Gulf States) for semi-skilled and low-skilled jobs was more or less equal, the number of female migrant workers now seems to be on a decline. (Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment, 2015). Many attribute this shift to the local government’s ‘FBR’ or Family Background Report policy, which places a ban on women migrating for domestic work if they have children under 5. The policy, while perhaps well-intentioned, could have a variety of implications. For one, women who initially migrated overseas for domestic work might still, in the absence of opportunities back home in Sri Lanka, seek to migrate: and this time via irregular or informal pipelines, which would increase their susceptibility to forced labour and trafficking. Additionally, the policy, while possibly aiming to protect the rights of migrant women and their children, prioritises the family of the woman, or ‘relative’ rights’, over the ‘individual rights’ of the woman, looking at her through the lens of her family rather than as an individual.

During my internship, I had the opportunity to conduct focus group discussions with migrant worker returnees from the Middle East, most of whom had been employed as domestic workers. My main emphasis was on the extent of financial inclusion, both back here in Sri Lanka, and whilst they were residing overseas. Their feedback was intriguing, and I have listed a handful of the points we discussed below:

  • When asked if they benefited (financially) from migration, most of the former migrants said that they had. However, since many had pre-existing loans and numerous dependents, these benefits were predominantly in the form of increased liquidity for day-to-day expenses, rather than the purchase of long-term assets such as houses or cars.
  • Most of them remitted money from overseas to their dependents back in Sri Lanka via channels such as Western Union or MoneyGram, rather than formal banking channels. They were also most often paid by their employers in cash.
  • While most of these migrant women did not have bank accounts when they used to live overseas, some of them have now opened bank accounts and know how to use ATM machines. There also appears to be a possible link between their economic empowerment after going overseas, and their increased involvement in financial decision-making within their households, once they returned home.
  • The awareness levels of these women about the possible risks of migration prior to going overseas, seems limited. For instance, some of the women were not aware of their rights with respect to being given leave during the week, or the fact that they had the right to continued communication with their families. In addition, if they were aware, they raised the issue of not possessing all the decision-making power in their own hands.

There were many more points that came out of the interaction. However, the entire discussion made me think back to my own experience as a skilled migrant. The main differences were apparent- the fact that, by absolutely no fault of their own, the workers with whom I interacted had hailed from worse-off economic backgrounds, with lesser educational access. Yet, it would be unfair to ignore the various steps the country has made in the direction of safe migration- from registering recruitment agents, to trying to reduce recruitment costs, and providing first-time migrants with pre-departure training.

Despite all the above, a few things seem to remain in the air: socioeconomic inequality, the need to create more alluring employment opportunities to attract migrants to remain back home, and of course, fortified frameworks to protect domestic worker rights in the countries of destination in question.

The laundry list of pending policy measures required to ensure that low-skilled migrant workers migrate safely and have good experiences overseas seems long, but it is entirely worth it.

Because in the end, with the right policies, systems and measures in place, we could ensure better experiences for not just the workers themselves, but even their children. So that one day, their kids too, can have the coolest blue bicycle in Wadi Kabir.

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