By Niranjani Roland
Church and rights activists want the Sri Lankan government to ensure that citizens working abroad have the right to vote in national elections so they can access vital social benefits.
“Voting rights are one of the basic rights and it should be given to migrant workers who contribute to our economy,” said Father George Sigamoney, director of Caritas Sri Lanka, which is working to empower migrant workers.
Having migrant workers in the voters’ register certifies their place of residence and allows them other key rights and benefits.
Chandrani Perera, 58, who belongs to the Assemblies of God church and who worked in Jordan for 29 years, said she has no security as she ages because she is not entitled to a pension scheme.
“The government increases its income by the remittances we send, but they do nothing to secure our future,” she said pointing out how public servants and private workers are entitled to a provident fund when they retire.
Foreign workers are only “namesake” citizens, she said.
That is why Caritas is working to empower migrant workers to help ensure their rights, Father Sigamoney said.
Lakshman Nipuna Arachchi, secretary of Ethera Api (those serving abroad), an organization that works for migrant rights, pointed out that some expatriates working abroad for more than 30 years have never voted in any election held in Sri Lanka.
“They can’t exercise their voting rights and select a leader of their choice,” Arachchi said. “If migrant workers have an opportunity to elect leaders then leaders might show an interest in the rights of migrant workers.”
Arachchi said he submitted a petition Nov. 11 to the minister for foreign employment to set up a mechanism to allow foreign workers to vote.
Allowing these workers to vote will also entitle them to tax rebates, government pension schemes and a minimum wage rate, said the former parliamentarian from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Marxist party).
Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, also said Sri Lankans living abroad should be acknowledged with a basic right to vote.
However, the minister of foreign employment, Thalatha Athukorala, in a Nov. 11 press conference said giving voting rights to Sri Lankan migrant workers was not possible, as it could lead to election malpractices and see the system of electronic voting misused. However, she did say that discussions are ongoing on issues of minimum wage and pension schemes.
According to the Foreign Employment Bureau, there are 4 million Sri Lankans working abroad, the bulk being in Persian Gulf countries and in Europe. The country’s central bank estimated the amount of remittances sent home by Sri Lankans working abroad in 2014 was about US$7.5 billion.