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‘I must stay strong’: hardship for workers fleeing Sri Lanka’s ailing economy | Sri Lanka

Suvendra Mary hasn’t changed her clothes or eaten a decent meal in five days.

Last week, she and six other women boarded a bus from their hometown of Badulla, some 350km from Colombo, and arrived at the Immigration and Emigration Service hoping to apply for their passports. Since then, the women have sat in line with at least a thousand others who dream of leaving Sri Lanka.

Mary hopes to find work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. Her only goal is to send money home to her family, who are feeling the brunt of the worst economic meltdown to hit the country since independence from Britain in 1948.

The seriousness of the situation was revealed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Wednesday when he told Parliament that after months of shortages “our economy has completely collapsed”.

“I thought we could get our passports in one day, but now we’ve been in this line for several days,” said Mary, 41. “When it rains, we sit under umbrellas. If it’s too sunny, we sit under umbrellas. We don’t leave our place. If we leave, someone else will take it.”

Nowadays, people queuing for days to buy fuel and cooking gas are a common sight. Headline inflation shot up to 45.3% year-on-year through May this year. The Sri Lankan government is struggling to find enough foreign exchange to import essential goods, while protests continue across the island demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Sri Lankans gather outside the Immigration and Emigration Service to receive their passports to leave the country amid the country's economic crisisSri Lankans gather outside the Immigration and Emigration Service to receive their passports to leave the country amid the country’s economic crisis Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

A team from the International Monetary Fund is on the island to negotiate a rescue package. But for people like Mary, leaving seems to be the only way to overcome poverty.

According to government statistics, more than 329,000 people applied for passports from January to June 15 this year. Last year 382,504 passports were issued and in 2020 there were 207,692.

Chinthaka Pushpakumara, a 39-year-old father and caretaker from Polonnaruwa, some 227 km from Colombo, said he wanted to leave so his three children could have a better future. But he worried about leaving her behind.

“It wasn’t an easy decision. My youngest is only one and a half years old. I have to stay strong or my family will suffer,” Pushpakumara said.

He is not the only tourism industry worker to leave Sri Lanka, which is heavily dependent on tourism revenue. Sanath Ukwate, former president of the Hotel Association of Sri Lanka, said the industry had lost about 15,000 professionals.

“There is more to leave. we [hotel owners] are very concerned, but we cannot force them to stay. We are facing a challenging time right now,” he said. Most tourism industry professionals look for work in the Maldives, as well as in Dubai, Qatar or elsewhere in the Middle East.

A woman waits at the Sri Lankan Immigration and Emigration Service to apply for a passportA woman waits at the Sri Lankan Immigration and Emigration Service to apply for a passport Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

Sri Lankans seeking work abroad are mostly semi-skilled workers such as plumbers, drivers and mechanics. The government has already sent 138,460 registered workers abroad this year, compared to 122,321 last year. Many more have not registered.

Manusha Nanayakkara, Minister of Labor and Foreign Employment said that it is a good thing for Sri Lankans to go abroad for work as the country needs foreign remittances. He said shops and other small businesses would close, putting many of them out of work.

On June 20, the Cabinet of Ministers passed a proposal to lower the legal working age for women working abroad as housemaids from 25 to 21, to encourage all migrant workers to register with the government.

However, it is not always easy to leave home. A video recently shared on social media has been burned into Pushpakumara’s memory. “It was a video of a young child calling his father as he was going to work. I couldn’t watch the video to the end. I turned off my cell phone. I know I have to stay strong.”

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