Switzerland and the United States join forces to support migrant workers

The Swiss and U.S. governments have joined hands to initiate the Safe and Resilient Migrant Workers (SRMW) project in Sri Lanka. Designed to provide much needed guidance and skills development for Sri Lankan migrant workers, SRMW will be fully integrated with the U.S. Agency for International Development supported USD 18 million youth employment and entrepreneurship project, YouLead. YouLead’s work over the past three years on career guidance and vocational skills development, combined with more than ten years of experience by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) working to improve the overall well-being of migrant workers, makes the two partners an ideal match. The Swiss contribution of $1.5 million over three years will provide guidance and skills training for thousands of migrant workers, as well as helping returned migrant workers assess their skills learned overseas and link them to employment and entrepreneurship opportunities in Sri Lanka.

SRMW, part of SDC’s ‘Safe Labor Migration Program Phase IV’ was formally launched on March 2, 2021 at the Embassy of Switzerland in Colombo, by Ambassador Dr Dominik Furgler of Switzerland and Ambassador Alaina Teplitz of the United States.

The project is designed to make overseas employment safer and more rewarding, both financially and professionally, by providing better occupational information and by increasing the skill levels of Sri Lankans who go abroad for work. It will also work to help reintegrate returning workers into meaningful productive opportunities in Sri Lanka. SRMW comes at a particularly important time as more than 50,000 migrant workers are returning home due to the pandemic—many of them without employment prospects. The activity will focus its efforts in Kandy, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Puttalam and Vavuniya—all districts with large numbers seeking work overseas, while actively influencing national policy initiatives for improved skilled migration.

“The pandemic has undoubtedly highlighted the challenges faced by migrant workers for years, and this developing crisis calls for immediate action. Therefore, the ‘Skilled and Resilient Migrant Workers Project’ aims to build on the foundations laid by the safe labor migration programmes launched by the government of Switzerland, to accelerate its positive impact on Sri Lanka’s migrant labor force,” commented His Excellency the Swiss Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Dominik Furgler.

According to research conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO), Sri Lanka’s migrant workers are a vital part of the economy with over 200,000 Sri Lankans migrating for work annually, contributing to approximately 2 million Sri Lankans working overseas. Private remittances sent to Sri Lanka in 2017 were equivalent to US$ 7.19 billion (approximately 63% of total export earnings and 9% of GDP) (Source: https://www.ilo.org/colombo/info/pub/pr/WCMS_737558/lang–en/index.htm).

Even in such a context, numerous challenges arise due to the low-skilled nature of a significant proportion of migrant workers, including inhibiting their ability to reintegrate into the country’s workforce when they return.  This is particularly true for the more vulnerable, low-skilled, and female migrant workers.  Paradoxically, despite rising unemployment, there is a shortage of skilled workers within Sri Lanka in some industries, such as construction, where returned migrant workers are likely to have useful skills. The project will assess the capabilities of returned migrant workers, help them get a formal vocational qualification, and link them to employers seeking skilled workers. Therefore, having better informed and more skilled migrant workers not only makes outward migration safer and better paid, it fuels the economy through increased remittances, and promotes long-term growth when they return and apply their improved skills within Sri Lanka.

Referring to the vital importance of the initiative, Ambassador Teplitz added, “With migrant workers contributing 9% of Sri Lanka’s overall GDP, it is a matter of urgency to equip them with the skills necessary to strengthen their personal welfare and amplify their contribution to the economy. We recognize their importance to the country’s development and applaud the role they play.  Hence, it is our duty to help them secure safe, sustainable livelihoods wherever they are in the world.”

Commenting on the urgency of the project, SRMW Project Director and YouLead Deputy Project Director Chrishan Pereira said, “This project attempts to build the capacity of community-based organizations (CBOs) to serve the needs of large numbers of returning migrant workers more effectively and sustainably, with a focus on women migrant workers and the skillsets particular to women migrant worker needs. With YouLead’s strong relationships with the private sector and training organizations, as well as experience in recognition of prior learning, we are ready to take this challenge head on”.

The peoples of the United States and Switzerland, through their respective agencies for development cooperation, have provided economic and humanitarian assistance in Sri Lanka for more than 70 years, collectively providing more than two billion dollars towards development projects.

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