Speech at skills development workshop


 I am deeply appreciative of the Ministry of Skills Development, for inviting me to participate in this workshop, on Skills Recognition of Migrant Workers. As I would explain later, this Ministry and mine are in a symbiotic relationship, supporting each other.

It is a little understood fact that migrant workers contributed US $ 4.2 Billion in 2010 to the national economy of Sri Lanka. It is the highest foreign exchange earner, far surpassing Tea, Garments and Tourism. This sum is 33% of foreign exchange earnings, and 8 % of the GDP. This sum financed 80% of import deficit. All of us here are beneficiaries of the hard work of our migrant workers. But for them, a devaluation would have been mandatory, requiring all of us to lower our standards of living.

But this rosy picture masks troublesome realties. Sri Lanka’s migrant labour force is female based, housemaid centered, low-skill driven and having a high concentration in the Middle East. Because it is in the 3 D job category - Dirty, Dangerous and Despised- barriers to entry are low. One advantage - if it could be called an advantage, is that these jobs are recession proof, since locals look down their noses on these job. Sri Lanka has no concern about retrenchment.

But, should we continue its be in the degraded job market? I for one say a hearty No. We must remind ourselves that India and Pakistan have banned house maids going abroad. I have therefore increased the age of housemaids from 18 to 21 and hope to increase it further to 30, in 4 years time. Considering the vital financial contribution made by housemaids to the economy, it would be unwelcome to hasty decisions.

Simultaneously, we are rebranding the foreign employment market. We wish to shift from unskilled to semi- skilled and skilled categories. This is not a anti- feminist program but, we also wish, to gradually change gender, from female to male. It is here that we wish to establish a close link with the Ministry on Skills Development.

Yesterday, your ministry hosted a regional conference on human resources development, through technical and vocational education and training. I read the presentations made in the newspapers. I was fascinated by the National Vocational Qualification Ladder, starting with core entry basis skills, to NVQ level 7. The semi-skills and skills we are talking about, is of the lower levels of NVQ 3-4.

Our ministry is trying to ensue availability of jobs before skills are provided. This is done through MOU’s. The Korean MOU is a long standing agreement which provides about 9000 low skilled jobs. But each of these jobs gets seven times the income a housemaid earns. Next week, I will be gong to Malaysia to negotiate another MOU on similar lines. To meet the supply for these semi-skilled, we have training programs conducted by our own SLBFE, and the private sector. But they are not enough. This is where we would like to strike an MOU with the Ministry of Skills Development. We will negotiate jobs aboard, they can help us by training and certifying semi- skilled and skilled personal. It is best equipped to do this, as it covers 104 occupations at the craft level, and 14 fields at the middle technical level. These are the areas we are looking at.

Reading the concept papers I find that this workshop will lead to skill recognition of migrant workers. But building skills requires preliminaries. Skills bases could be distinguished from non-skill bases by the use of energy. A humble housemaid uses a broom with manual energy. But, if she has to compete in the Middle-East, she must know to use a vacuum cleaner, using electrical energy. Sometimes there are glitches. I recently I read an advertisement by a electrical supplier, “Don’t kill your wife with work: let electricity do it for you”

Another area that has to be recognized is technology. Technology is nothing but knowledge incorporated in to machines. Five years ago a microwave oven was simple. It needed only inputting the time and it will do the work. Now, facing a microwave is like being in the cockpit of a plane. There are buttons, light flashes, and bewildering noises and bells. A housemaid has to be trained for all this. Technology also changes. When I was at the Port, I climbed 80 feet to see how a crane operator shifts containers. From this height, a container looks like a matchbox. He has to coordinate his hands, legs and most important, his sight, to get the crane to grab the container, raise it and place it gently on the container track bed. His skills are similar to a world class cricketer. Now, the technology has changed. He has to deal with two containers at the same time. I am told in Dubai, crane operators deal with four containers at a time. It is good for cricket that its technology has not changed. Just imagine Kumar Sangakkara facing 4 balls at one time, though he had a taste of it after his Lords Speech.

Energy, technology are useless for skill building unless it leads to productivity. This workshop might consider building productivity improvement as the comparative advantage for Sri Lankan workers. Productivity lies in getting more for less, either by reducing inputs for a given level of outputs, or increasing outputs for a given level of inputs. At the same time, there should be quality standards and indicators of performance.

Since this workshop deals with migrant workers, I have nominated a large contingent from the Ministry my private office, the Ministry office and the Bureau. I would like each one of them to submit individual reports, of how this workshop inspired them to assist the Ministry, to rebrand itself from a supplier of low - valued migrant workers, to higher valued skilled and semi- skilled workers.

I wish the workshop well.