Labour import approvals to be centralised

By Madhusha Thavapalakumar

A new national policy on foreign workers, which will be submitted to the Cabinet soon, is expected to centralise and expedite the approval process in bringing foreign workers to Sri Lanka, which currently involves approvals from several bodies.

The new policy, which was recommended by a committee of professionals appointed by the National Human Resources Development Council (NHRDC), is aimed at creating a one-stop shop to streamline foreign labour imports.

The committee will present its report to the Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution Prof. Harsha De Silva on Friday (22) at an event organised by NHRDC.

According to the committee, the NHRDC will be the professional body which would decide on the types of foreign labour that Sri Lanka requires, while the Department of Immigration and Emigration would be the granting authority that allows them entry into the country.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, NHRDC Chairman Dinesh Weerakkody stated: “We will work on the backend while the final part will be handled by the Department of Immigration and Emigration, and the monitoring will also be done by them.”

Weerakkody stated that in the present system, multiple institutions are involved in the approval process, thereby causing delays. He assured that with the new policy in place, it would take a couple of days to get foreign labour imports approved.

“At present, it is being done by three or four agencies. For example, if a pharmaceutical company needs foreign labour, they have to obtain approval from the Health Ministry which is completely unaware of the labour shortage. At the moment, the Board of Investment (BOI) is handling a part of it.”

According to Weerakkody, under the new policy, the company in need of foreign labour has to submit an application to the NHRDC, after which the NHRDC will conduct a survey to identify the exact labour requirement and determine the legitimacy of the application.

Upon completion, the survey reports will be transferred to the Department of Immigration and Emigration, where permission will be granted to bring in the relevant migrant workers.

“In the example I gave above, the pharmaceutical company should come directly to the NHRDC, which will look into the matter. It acts as a one-stop shop. It will know whether there is a shortage or not, and then it will take the matter up to the Immigration Department,” Weerakkody noted.

He also noted that the survey results should also be passed onto universities and vocational training institutes as labour gaps identified should be filled through local recruitment.

“The survey reports should also be sent to vocational training institutes, universities, and all similar institutes as the results obtained were demand-driven. We should have a strategy where we start to build people locally as well,” he added.

Academics and industry professionals have been calling for a national policy on foreign workers for a long time as Sri Lanka faces an acute shortage of labour, particularly at the lower levels of employment.

The new policy is expected to focus on minimum wage and health insurance, among other things, and would also include a permit system inspired by South Korea’s Employment Permit System (EPS).

According to the Department of Immigration and Emigration, currently, 30,558 foreigners are working in Sri Lanka with work visas from the Department, which consist of both the newly issued of work visas and the extension of existing visas in 2018.

Accordingly, in 2018, 4,554 new work visas were issued for foreigners to work in BOI projects, while 5,595 visas were extended for the same purpose.

4,506 new work visas were issued to the state sector employees and 4,708 existing visas in the sector were extended, while 5,782 new visas were issued and 5,413 visas were extended for private sector employment.

As estimated by the Department of Immigration and Emigration, India and China stand as the top two countries that send their workers to Sri Lanka, contributing over 8,500 and 7,000 workers, respectively, which amount to around 50% of the total number of work visas issued in 2018.