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The Migrant Services Center, which assists migrant workers and their families in Sri Lanka, offers a model for other labor and worker rights organizations, a new Solidarity Center report finds.
 
Home > Where We Work > Asia > Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka
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In Sri Lanka, the Solidarity Center and its partners support and promote government and workplace policies aimed at protecting the rights of migrant workers, especially in the Middle East.

A worker surveys the wreckage of his home after the 2004 tsunami.

For more than two decades, Sri Lanka was devastated by a brutal civil war between the government and armed Tamil separatists, the LTTE. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankan citizens were killed. In the mid-1980s, several hundred thousand Tamil citizens fled the country. In late December 2004, a major tsunami took about 31,000 lives, left more than 6,300 missing and 443,000 displaced, and destroyed an estimated $1.5 billion worth of property. A brief cease-fire followed, but it soon deteriorated into fighting. On May 19, 2009, the president of Sri Lanka officially claimed the end of the insurgency and the defeat of the LTTE following the death of its leader.

Despite the civil war and political uncertainties, Sri Lanka’s economy has continued to grow. Its most dynamic industries are food processing, textiles and apparel, food and beverages, port construction, telecommunications, and insurance and banking. Another important element of Sri Lanka’s development strategy is remittances from migrant workers, Sri Lanka’s most consistent earner of foreign exchange. About 1.5 million Sri Lankans—more than 10 percent of its total labor force—work abroad, 90 percent of them in the Middle East. They send home more than $2.5 billion a year. More than 70 percent are young women, the vast majority employed as domestic workers. 

The Sri Lankan government actively promotes employment opportunities abroad to send as many workers overseas as possible. In doing so, however, it has lost sight of its obligations to its own citizens, regardless of whether they are in their homeland or overseas, to abide by its own laws and its international commitments. The countries to which workers migrate often restrict freedom of association, but the exploitation of migrant workers may begin before they leave the country. To its credit, the government has tried to initiate programs aimed at registering and training workers, arrange insurance and loan packages, and provide social services for families left behind.

In 2002, Sri Lanka ratified the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. In April 2006, following the initiative of the Solidarity Center and urging by other worker advocacy groups, the government amended the human trafficking section of its Penal Code to align with the protocol. Nonetheless, the U.S Department of State reports that Sri Lanka is a source and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of involuntary servitude and commercial sexual exploitation. According to the report, the Sri Lankan government failed to arrest, prosecute, or convict any person for trafficking offenses and continued to punish some victims of trafficking for crimes committed as a result of being trafficked.

In Sri Lanka’s export processing zones, hostility toward unions is the norm. Opportunities for organizers to approach workers are rare, and management abuses often go unchecked. Union activists have been suspended, demoted, fired, and assaulted. Worker rights violations and worker exploitation are facilitated by the policy of starving labor inspectorates of resources, which often results in corruption among the inspectors. Labor inspectors are not even allowed to make unannounced workplace visits to EPZ factories. The growing disenchantment over the government’s anti-union stance has prompted the historically fragmented labor movement to band together in protest.


Sri Lanka: 800 Factory Workers Wage Long Strike for Union. Update, November 21, 2013—Hundreds of striking workers at Ansell Lanka marched to the Australian High Commission office yesterday, the 40th day of the strike at the manufacturing plant.

Sri Lanka: A Worker Center Offers a Model for Aiding Migrant Workers. December 18, 2012—With no other option to support her family in her native Sri Lanka, Nalani Samarasinghe, 41, has moved to Qatar three times for jobs ranging from 11 months to three years.

Solidarity Center Publications Program Partners
  • Action Network for Migrant Workers (ACTFORM)
  • All Ceylon Federation of Free Trade Unions
  • Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees’ Union
  • Health Sector Trade Union Alliance
  • Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya
  •  Migrant Services Center
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