The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

The Consultation with responsible government officials we convened last week, to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, would I thought be easy, since the subjects to be discussed were not at all contentious. In one sense this turned out true, because there was no disagreement at all about what needed to be done. However we also realized the enormous slowness with which government departments have been acting and I don’t suppose it will be easy to ensure swift responses.

The first area we looked at was that of Labour Rights, where our record is relatively good. One area we must do better is ensuring protection of children from hazardous occupations, for which obviously there needs to be better coordination between the Police, the Labour Ministry and the Child Development Ministry and its relevant agencies. Similarly, we must ensure conformity with regard to legislation concerning compulsory schooling, employment, and the right to join trade unions. At present there are some discrepancies, which could lead to children who are employed, albeit legally, being exploited.

All that is needed for the above is commitment and action by the responsible agencies. More complicated will be the issue of delays in settlement of Industrial Disputes. Despite alternatives being available, we have wasted much time and effort in confrontational approaches (unsurprisingly, given that that is the culture in the country generally) whereas better recourse should be had to mediation and arbitration. Ensuring a level playing field between employers and trade unions is also essential, and the Plan recognizes that sometimes unfair practices are associated more with trade unions than employers.

With regard to migrant workers, there is much stress in the Plan on training and awareness programmes, with regard to rights, conditions in receiving countries, possibilities of exploitation, existing mechanisms to provide protection. Here however, as elsewhere in the Plan where awareness programmes were recommended, we felt there was an absence of mechanisms to ensure that such programmes are effective. At its simplest, I found that some agencies conducting such programmes had not set out for themselves what their aims were, and the indicators that would establish that the programmes were achieving these aims.

…our failure to ensure follow up …will find victims of exploitation slipping through the net.

This goes back to a basic difficulty we have, which is our failure to ensure follow up. Monitoring and reporting mechanisms are limited, and unless we develop these more carefully, the good work that is being done will be useless. Thus, it was clear that the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare has indeed done a lot of work to improve conditions and also awareness, but unless they develop a good monitoring system, we will find victims of exploitation slipping through the net.

I was also disappointed that we have not yet developed an effective system of tracking our workers in other countries. When the Plan was being prepared, we suggested that all workers arriving in any country should register with our embassies in those countries, and be requested to provide contact information, plus a quarterly confirmation of their position. This would allow us to investigate quickly anyone who went off the radar.Setting such a system in place should not be difficult, provided the cooperation of all sending agencies is made mandatory, with stiff penalties for non-compliance. This would be the best way of preventing trafficking, since that could not happen without the connivance of particular agencies. Our ongoing failure to set out operational procedures and ensure compliance is what permits such exploitation to continue.Another area of concern – and I suspect my colleagues at these Consultations are now getting tired of my insistence on this – is the lack of adequate counseling services. The Ministry does now have a very impressive centre to provide care for returning workers, but this does not help with those who go back home and have difficulty in adjusting. The simplest mechanism to deal with this would be the regular meetings we have suggested that Grama Niladharis have with representatives of the Women and Children’s Desk of police stations, with regular consultation of social workers responsible for the area, and in particular Health Ministry personnel.

The development of what I have termed Vulnerability Indices in every GN Division would ensure preventive action before a crisis developed. Efforts should also be made to involve the community in support systems, which is why I was so heartened when the Girl Guides made clear their concerns in this area and their desire to help.The Ministry of Health, which has continued to do a fantastic job throughout the country despite great practical difficulties and shortages of personnel, should take the lead role in this and ensure coordination between local officials, trained police personnel, and government and civil society social workers.In this regard, our suggestion that the meetings should also cover school dropouts is obviously relevant also to the situation of the families of migrant workers. Where one parent is away, children will obviously suffer, and the tendency to drop out of school will increase. Monitoring the situation of such families, and providing counseling and other support from the start will help to mitigate any ill effects of parental absence.

We must take very seriously the suggestion that we should upgrade the skills of our workers.

Finally, we must take very seriously the suggestion that we should upgrade the skills of our workers. Though some efforts have been made in this regard, there is no coherent policy with regard to the soft skills that must be added on if our workers are to move up the ladder from their current position, basically that of the lowest paid in the international job market for labour. We must register the need to pursue personality development through enhanced language skills, cultural activity, organizational experience and teamwork, but Vocational Training in many parts of the country still goes on the old model of simply developing manual labourers, without supplementary skills. Indeed the situation is worse, in that the skills taught do not include many that are essential as the construction industry develops in those areas.

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