Viewpoint : John Wilson

The Immigrants and Emigrants Act requires non-nationals entering Sri Lanka to obtain a visa unless exempted, although there are provisions for nationals of certain countries to enter without a visa for tourism or business purposes and to receive endorsement upon arrival. Administratively, an electronic travel authorisation (ETA) scheme is in place, which is required by nearly all travellers who do not obtain a visa.

Under the current law, for a non-citizen to work in Sri Lanka, a residence visa must be obtained alongside permission to work and a letter of recommendation secured from the relevant ministry or department. Without such a letter, a residence visa with the right to work will not be granted. Once the letter has been obtained, the applicant must apply to the Department of Immigration and Emigration for authorisation to be sent to the relevant Sri Lankan diplomatic mission to issue an entry visa to the applicant. After arriving in Sri Lanka the residence visa has to be applied for. However, identifying which ministry or government department to apply to for a letter of recommendation can be challenging, and the procedures can vary, with uncertain timelines and criteria. Overall, the system is cumbersome and geared towards preventing foreigners from being employed in Sri Lanka. The proposal to streamline the sourcing of labour from overseas has triggered opposition. Although it is understandable that workers fear losing their jobs, the position of many small and medium-sized enterprise entrepreneurs is that there is not enough awareness about market dynamics or the benefits of cutting red tape for all. Consideration should also be given to a skilled-visa programme.

However, an overhaul of the system appears to be under way, with new regulations drafted. Based on information currently available, it appears that the new regime will eliminate the need to deal with separate ministries and government departments – a progressive step. The proposed draft regulations recognise several eligible categories of employment and visas which may be applied for: senior management personnel; professionally qualified persons; skilled workers; semi-skilled workers; and temporary workers, all of which are prescribed minimum salary levels. One notable feature of the proposed regulations is that the granting authority of the employment visas may grant the visa if the prescribed authority is satisfied that the proposed employment of the person is in accordance with government policy – although the policy has yet to be explicitly specified. Other features mandate that employers must furnish security, which may be forfeited in the event of visa condition violations, and that an employment visa may be granted to any person who is not a temporary worker for a period of two years or for the term of that person’s employment, whichever is less, and extended for a similar period, although no visa can be extended for a cumulative period of more than five years. It is the prescribed authority who must ensure that recruitment of semi-skilled persons is in accordance with the guidelines, if any, set out by the National Human Resource Development Council (NHRDC), although no guidelines appear to have been published yet. It is imperative that the policy guidelines are transparent, clear and consistently applied. It remains to be seen how the proposed draft regulations and the NHRDC might work in practice.

If Sri Lanka wishes to position itself as a hub between Singapore and Dubai, and for key initiatives such as the Megapolis and Port City Colombo to succeed, there must be change. There already exist concerns about ensuring that foreign workers, whether legally or illegally employed, enjoy the same protections as Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka cannot become an economy that exploits migrant workers. The balancing of protectionist tendencies and the need for dynamism, new talent and ideas that are favourable for economic growth is one that must be handled sensitively and rationally. Achieving the bigger picture of a prosperous, connected and open Sri Lanka requires radical new approaches.