By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
One of the topics currently under intense debate and discussion in the public domain is the much disputed Economic & Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA). It has led to a serious dispute between the present government and Sri Lanka’s professionals in the medical and IT sectors, besides members of civil society. It does not mean ETCA is without supporters though it would appear opponents outnumber supporters to the proposed agreement.
Not being well versed in International Trade Agreements and Goods & Services Agreements, it is not the intention of the writer to analyse the pros and cons of ETCA other than to state, any agreement need be thoroughly vetted by a group of experts before a decision is made of its suitability or lack of it. It should not be evaluated based on emotions or impact on one or a few stake holder groups, but based on overall benefits that would accrue to the nation.
At the outset, it must be stated, the proposed bridge between India and Sri Lanka is in no way comparable to the proposed ETCA. The bridge could facilitate the movement of unskilled and unemployed persons from the state of Tamil Nadu with a population of 77.8 million. Around 20% of the population live below the poverty line. According to Indian Labour Ministry, Tamil Nadu’s youth population (15-30 age group) amounts to 21 mil. 6 mil of the said youth group including 14% who are graduates, are unemployed. These would be candidates to cross the proposed bridge in search of greener pastures, as did their grand- fathers in the 1950s and 1960 as illicit immigrants. Other ill effects could be smuggling, diseases, epidemics etc. from Tamil Nadu besides the loss of Sri Lanka’s island status. Retaining island status may not be necessary under normal circumstances but is absolutely necessary in view of our giant neighbour India and its Tamil Nadu state. On the other hand, agreements such as ETCA are meant for qualified persons. Their appointments and arrivals are meant to be properly recorded and monitored. The duration of their stay could be pre-determined.
Much has been stated of over two hundred PhD holders applying for some Peon’s vacancies in India. It is a progressive step compared to Sri Lanka’s unemployed graduates, many who are categorized as ‘unemployable’ in the private sector, agitating for white collar jobs in the state sector.
This writer wishes to examine some other aspects, based on the objections voiced specifically by those in the Medical and IT professions and some in the general public. It need be understood, we live in a globalized world. Free movement of trade, goods, services, skilled labour to name a few are all necessary components in the context of globalization. Unfortunately, many Sri Lankans are unable to grasp the advantages of globalization unless they have some personal benefit. Many tend to approach such issues with a ‘tunnel vision’ mentality.
A case in point is the number of Sri Lankan doctors and IT Professionals, who after having received free education in Sri Lanka have moved to UK, USA, Canada and Australia. What would have been the plight of our doctors and IT Professionals had their counterparts in such countries objected to the arrivals from Sri Lanka? It may be argued, the said countries have a shortage especially of qualified doctors. On the other side of the divide, so does Sri Lanka. We too have a drastic shortage of doctors which is the reason previous and present governments have handled the GMOA with extreme caution. No government wishes to have press photographs of sick or dying patients narrating stories of lack of treatment due to striking doctors and other medical personnel, under their watch. It must be stated, it is the objective of GMOA to maintain status quo in order to retain their bargaining power. Considering our doctors and IT professionals who have obtained employment overseas, is it morally and ethically correct to object to foreign medical and IT professionals working in Sri Lanka? Their remuneration obviously should be based on qualifications and experience, besides demand and supply.
Similarly, over 150,000 Sri Lankans live and work in each of the European countries such as Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. They perform tasks from washing dishes, cleaning roads to blue collar jobs and in some cases even white collar jobs after achieving proficiency in the local language and required professional qualifications. The total number of Sri Lankans living and working outside Sri Lanka excluding the Middle East would probably exceed the 1 mil mark. In the same token, we Sri Lankans must be ready to accept foreign workers in our country as well, especially in areas with acute shortages of trained and competent man power. Such shortages is what enables small groups, professionals or otherwise, to hold the whole nation to ransom.
One only has to try to obtain the services of a Carpenter, Electrician, Mason, Plumber, Welder etc. all necessary in our day to day life. The difficulty in finding good workmen who are competent, efficient and punctual is known to most of us. In such a back ground, the writer is of the view, this country need workmen in many disciplines, may it be from India or otherwise. Britain was flooded with skilled and semiskilled labour from the less affluent new entrants to EU such as Romania and Poland. It eased the shortages in skilled and semi-skilled manpower and has contributed considerably towards the improvement in many sectors, especially the construction industry. It has also made in much easier to obtain the services of Plumbers, Masons, Electricians, Carpenters and Handymen which in turn improves the quality of life of the general populace.
Yet another factor which need be highlighted is that foreign professionals contribute immensely to the knowledge base of a country. The number of foreign doctors, engineers, bankers and other professionals involved in their respective sectors in developed nations is massive. The knowledge and experience they bring with them contributes in no small measure in their respective fields as well as in Research & Development. Students and graduates entering the professional world benefit from the knowledge and expertise of such foreign professionals besides local professionals. In a country such as Sri Lanka, there is always scope to utilize foreign professionals, especially in the medical field due to the acute shortage of qualified doctors, especially those willing to serve outside big cities.
ETCA should not be something shoved down our throats by India as they have become apt in doing as of late. That said, we Sri Lankans need to broaden our horizons and look at issues without blinkers such as protectionism. We Sri Lankans, whilst retaining our island status need to shed both our island mentality as done by the British and tunnel vision. In that context, let a properly constituted panel of experts make an independent evaluation of ETCA, its benefits and drawbacks. Should it contain an overall benefit to Sri Lanka, let us make use of ETCA for the sake of all Sri Lankans who are the most important stake holders, even if it may have some adverse effects on stake holders in the medical and IT sectors.