Guaranteeing safety of migrant workers: Lessons Learnt from Sialkot Lynching

15 December, 2021

International Affairs

In the face of escalating threats to migrant workers’ self-sufficiency, financial instability, and marginalisation and stigma in the name of the pandemic, religious extremism and racism have taken a back seat, occasionally rearing its ugly head. Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana (48), the most recent victim in Pakistan where a mob killed and had a fanfare taking selfies, demonstrates how extremist people still live among us and as close to us as in Pakistan.


Such heinous crimes cannot be tolerated at a workplace where religion and racism take precedence over work ethics. Diyawadana’s death was the first of its kind to happen to a foreign worker.


In 2013, we witnessed the beheading of young Rizana Nafeek in Saudi Arabia. Sri Lanka was powerless because the underage girl had lied about her age by using a forged passport. Her innocence could not be proven. As she was beheaded, her family wept. The bereaved party offered blood money, but the woman accusing Rizana of murdering her infant refused. Instead, she wished to take Rizana’s life. All of this happened in the twenty-first century, when advanced technology and artificial intelligence have taken over humanity. The Government provided her family with a decent home, and Rizana’s story ended there.


How does a country portray the safety of migrant workers? What the worker is told before leaving the shores is minimal when checked with a few of the workers who returned to Sri Lanka.


No labour migration agreement with Pakistan


Ceylon Today learns that there are over 356 Sri Lankan migrant workers in Pakistan, but there is no labour migration agreement between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and that it is high time for Sri Lanka to sign such agreements with all of the countries where Sri Lankan migrant workers are stationed, as trends toward more gruesome extremism of all kinds are taking priority.


There are many other MoUs signed by the Sri Lankan Government with Middle Eastern countries, but these agreements need to be upgraded, as violence of many forms are tearing apart societies and humans. 


The majority of workers in top and middle management positions in companies are not registered with the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE). According to credible sources, there are over 600 Sri Lankan workers in Ethiopia who faced significant difficulties returning to Sri Lanka due to the COVID-19 crisis because many of the top earners had not registered with the SLBFE. Ethiopia is also rife with sectarian violence and has strict blasphemy laws.


The lynching


The lynching of Diyawadana, the General Manager of a leading private apparel factory, ‘Rajco Sporting Goods Manufacturing Company,’ in Sialkot, Punjab Province, Pakistan, was for allegedly committing blasphemy when workers were upset about an order to remove posters seen throughout the compound. According to reports, Priyantha, as General Manager, directed staff to remove posters and litter because a top team from Germany was expected, and Diyawadana is also said to have removed a poster. Sri Lankans believe he would have been well aware of ‘Islamic extremism’ and blasphemy laws and would have acted accordingly. 


Blasphemy law is a tool that is often misused. In many countries, including Pakistan, religion is sometimes used for political and personal gain, and they do not spare the country’s Muslims too.


On 29 May 2020, a man was lynched and two others were injured in Hazara, Quetta, Pakistan, where 300 men murdered Bilal Noorzai. The cops were suspected of being equal partners. Police suspect it was over a money dispute but some say it was over a women’s issue. In the case of Diyawadana’s death, Police Officers were also seen on the scene.


In a separate incident last year in Pakistan, a young man named Jibran fought with a man who harassed his female friend, and no justice was served to the victim’s family. According to social media, the assailant is still on the loose.


Also, the United Nation’s experts appealed to the Government to urgently release Stephen Masih, a Pakistani Christian who has been persecuted and detained for over two years on blasphemy charges.


Blasphemy laws are not restricted to Muslims. Blasphemy laws are practised in nearly 19 countries, including Russia and India, where Christians and Hindus have been known to attack members of other faiths. Furthermore, in seven countries around the world, one can be sentenced to death for ‘blasphemy.’ Iran, the Middle East’s second-largest country, is one of them. Others are Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Mauritania, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.


Even in Sri Lanka, blasphemy laws are used to subtly attack other religions but not to the point of lynching. In Sri Lanka too, many have been arrested over strong remarks on religions. Zahran Hashim was enraged by purported blasphemy committed against Islam and he preached and released several YouTube messages before blasting a suicide jacket, joining a group of eight other religious radicals in killing 253 others on Easter Sunday, 2019.


A migrant worker is powerless in the face of such violent thoughts and actions. Despite the fact that they have signed Memoranda of Understanding and have labour officers in each of their embassies, worker protection is not guaranteed. Only after a person dies does his country begin to discuss compensation, insurance, and family perks, as was the case when Diyawadana’s life was cut short by lynching. In the aftermath of the lynching, Pakistan did its best to appease Sri Lanka but they may have to do so again in the future because the blasphemy law remains in place, and is used by religious extremists and mobs to get what they want. 


Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was ashamed. Pakistani social media decried the heinous act. They apologised profusely. Even Foreign Minister, Prof. G.L. Peiris had a meeting with the Acting High Commissioner of Pakistan in Colombo, Tanvir Ahmad on Thursday to discuss the matters relating to financial security/ compensation of the family of the late Priyantha Kumara.


The Foreign Minister also appreciated the intervention of the Pakistani Prime Minister, who has taken personal charge of this investigation, and taken steps to immediately investigate the incident. He also welcomed the announcement of the donation of US$ 100,000 by the business community in Sialkot and payment of the monthly salary of Priyantha Kumara to his widow. He requested to continue to financially support the family on time without delaying payments, as the children are schooling. 


The Pakistani Acting Envoy responded that the Government of Pakistan has taken the necessary steps for a full investigation and ensuring compensation for the family. The law enforcement agencies in Pakistan are working to ensure the safety of all other Sri Lankans living in Pakistan, he further said.



Safety and welfare of workers should be monitored


Senior Lecturer, Department of Social Studies, Open University of Sri Lanka, Thushari Gamage, speaking on ensuring the safety of workers abroad, said the plight of the Sri Lankan killed in Pakistan has renewed interest in the discourse on the safety and welfare of the Sri Lankan workers and their families abroad. 


“It is indeed a sensitive and timely topic when considering the number of reported migrant worker deaths in recent years. While recalling the workers is not a practical option, nor a probable solution to the issue due to the lack of suitable employment opportunities in the country and heavy reliance on remittances received from those workers, attention needs to be given to ensuring the safety of the migrant workers and their families.”


From a broader angle, she added that, building on the goodwill in bilateral relations, working to ensure that the assurances given are indeed kept, and constant monitoring of the situation provides a background to open up discussions about the security of the workers in respective countries. However, we also have to focus attention on areas that are often less explored yet vital in the context of worker security.


One such area is the welfare of migrant workers. There is a need to re-examine the role of the relevant Government authorities and re-assess the safety and welfare measures made available to the migrant workers in instances of crisis. Maintaining up-to-date records of the workers and their families, identifying vulnerable groups and keeping tabs on them are vital to ensuring their safety in such situations, she pointed out.


Secondly, there is a need to address fears among the workers when incidents of this nature occur. It includes liaising with the workers and their families in Sri Lanka, connecting them with the relevant authorities, both local and in the country where they are employed. In most instances, the attention to psychological and emotional support is minimal or non-existent.


Further, recent events also indicate that workers in specific socio-political contexts are more vulnerable than others. They have precarious legal status concerning job benefits, working conditions and personal safety. Therefore, the Government authorities need to prioritise focus to include those workers because at the end of the day, what matters is the ability to provide safety and welfare to workers who endure innumerable hardships to bring a smile to their loved ones here in Sri Lanka, she told Ceylon Today.


No unions to address workers’ plight


According to Joint Secretary, Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees’ Union, Anton Marcus, the information they had received was confirmed two days later on the lynching in a news report captioned ‘Pre-designed Plot Led to Lynching of Sri Lankan Manager in Pakistan Factory – Report’ appearing in Gulf News. According to an interim Police report, “two primary suspects, Farhan Idrees and his colleague Usman Rasheed, whom the Sri Lankan General Manager of a factory used to chastise for poor output and indiscipline, incited their colleagues to lynch him over blasphemy. 


“As a Sri Lankan trade union where majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist extremism frequently intervenes in decision-making both in State and non-State issues, we do understand how ‘blasphemy’ can be used in Islamic States to settle issues otherwise related to religion or race,” Marcus wrote in a letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.


He went on to say that it is a useful approach for workers who face management issues in workplaces where there is no trade union representation. “We have heard of cases in Sri Lanka where workers resort to physical abuse, inciting others to kidnap managers and brutally attack senior management staff because collective bargaining and negotiations are impossible due to employers’ opposition to employee unionisation. Worse, governments fail to insist on unionisation as a universally recognised fundamental right of all employees that employers must respect.


“We assumed Diyawadana was well aware of ‘Islamic extremism’ and blasphemy and would have acted accordingly, as he had for the previous 11 years without any allegations. Our trade union contacts in Islamabad informed us that the attack on Diyawadana was the result of a work floor conflict, which had been discreetly organised, with rumours spreading that he had insultingly torn up religious posters,” Marcus claimed. 


Factory premises should be safe 


One of Diyawadana’s brothers, Arunasiri Wasantha Kumara Diyawadana, who is also a Technical Director at a garment factory in Pakistan, added that factories should have a secure environment. “That was not happening in this particular case,” he said. He called for an improvement in management practices, so that any dispute can be resolved before it is too late. He said the two Governments should determine “the actual root cause for this, either if it’s a religious matter or an industrial dispute, and accordingly they have to find a solution.”


Meanwhile, President of National Union of Migrant Workers of Sri Lanka, Palitha Athukorale, said Sri Lanka needs to redesign sending workers to countries in the backdrop of growing violence. He also said Diyawadana’s death led to intense criticism and Pakistan had to minimise the effect. He said the attention Diyawadana received was not for many others who died in foreign lands. “As far as I know, there is no clause for labour protection in Sri Lanka,” he said.


He said they had visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) several years ago and spoke over defaulted labour laws, wages, extortion, human rights etc. “But with Pakistan such things we don’t think has been agreed upon.” He said having seen the escalation of sectarian violence as well as religious extremism in Pakistan, lynching or any form of violence against humanity would not stop. “What is the guarantee that there will not be any more lynching in Pakistan, it can be anyone,” he quipped. He was convinced that even UAE laws are better for migrant workers compared to Pakistan.


He added that the Pakistani Premier, in a statement, assured that everything will be taken care of and the perpetrators will be punished. But Athukorale added, “The remarks by the Pakistani Defence Minister, Pervez Khattak, who is a powerful man, perhaps more powerful than the Pakistani Prime Minister, about the lynching is serious,” he added. 


Pakistani Defence Minister’s remarks irk Sri Lankans


According to the Dawn newspaper, Defence Minister Khattak has suggested that the heinous lynching of a Sri Lankan man by a mob in Sialkot should not be linked to the Government’s decision to lift the ban on the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), claiming that “murders take place” when young people become emotional. When they are young... They become spirited and act on their emotions as they mature. “This does not mean this was the result of that action,” he emphasised, adding that in Sialkot, too, some young men gathered and accused Kumara of disrespecting Islam, leading to the “sudden” lynching, as reported by the newspaper. 


Khattak said he, too, could make a mistake when under stress, and that such incidents did not mean that “Pakistan is on the verge of destruction.” It was emphasised that the TLP is an extreme religious political party that was linked to Diyawadana’s lynching.


Minister of Public Security, Rear Admiral (Retired) Sarath Weerasekara, condemned the remarks and told the Defence Minister to apologise to Sri Lankans and withdraw the statement.


“We must be careful and take preventive measures because each country is different,” Athukorale continued. 


“Before leaving, migrant workers should be aware of their rights and the history of their destination country.”


He also referred to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention of C190 of 2019, which states that the ILO recognises the importance of a work culture based on mutual respect and dignity of the human being to prevent violence and harassment, and reminding members that they have an important responsibility to promote a general environment of zero-tolerance to violence and harassment in order to facilitate the prevention of such behaviours and practices. 


He went on to say that everything is a workplace incident and that there is nothing more to the harassment and death that Diyawadana endured. “He brought foreign currency into the country and should have been protected at all costs, but everyone failed.”


In addition, he said compensation should be handled consistently. The Diyawadana case became a part of Pakistani politics, and the country had to deal with it as part of its geopolitical strategy. Other victims did not receive the same treatment. He went on to say that Pakistan has its own cases of lynching, with perpetrators still on the loose. (