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Microsoft Sri Lanka takes initiative to Bridge the Digital Divide between Migrant Workers and their families

Bridge Digital Divide in Workers’ Families


Seated from Left to Right: Ms. Janakie Karunaratne – Manager - Community Affairs, Microsoft Sri Lanka, Mr. P. G. G. S. Yapa – Marketing Manager, Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, Ms. Dharshini Guniyangoda – Director, SLANA

As part of their novel initiative to bridge the digital divide between migrant workers and their families, Microsoft Sri Lanka is striving to extend Information and Communication Technology (ICT) throughout the island. Once implemented, access to and awareness of ICT can be rather life changing for these workers and their families, and also ideal to sensitize and promote the concept of skills development of migrant workers amongst other stake holders such as the Government, non- Government organizations and the corporate world. Exposure to ICT would also add value to the worker in the labor market, create potential opportunities for new economic activity, and heighten self confidence.

As unemployment is still quite a grave issue here, seeking employment opportunities overseas has become almost imperative to meet the constantly escalating cost of living and political instability. The real challenge however, is driving a balance between the immediate solution to the job crisis, and a permanent one, which ideally shouldn’t entail migration.

The estimate of migrant workers in Sri Lanka is approximately 1.5 million, raking in approximately 2.7 billion dollars by way of foreign exchange. Half of those living overseas reside in the Gulf region, whilst 50% are women. The Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) states outflow is over 200,000, with an increase by 7.6% in 2005. Foreign Employment is the highest foreign exchange earner for the country and their welfare package is quite favorable too. In addition, there has been a decline in illegal and undocumented migrations, however, despite this factor; migrant workers are typically characterized by low levels of access to technologies, poverty, illiteracy and language barriers. In Sri Lanka policy changes are being considered for minimizing the export of unskilled labor, thus replacing it with knowledge-based vocations that earn higher foreign exchange, much needed by the country.

Our migrant workers are faced with many problems during their time abroad, predominantly that of difficulty in adjusting caused by home sickness, communication constraints and changes in the climate and environment. Most migrant workers have not been able to meet their savings goals due to the substantial expenditure incurred in maintaining family ties and the lack of money management.

Microsoft joins this national effort by the SLBFE and the Sri Lanka Anti Narcotics Association (SLANA) to mitigate one of the main grievances faced by these workers, namely, communication constraints. This effort is very much in keeping with Microsoft’s regional thrust for migrant worker populations which promotes the use of technology in creating lasting, long-term changes for people and communities in partnership.

This partnership between Microsoft, SLANA, other NGOs and the SLBFE to establish a minimum of 15 training centers (in addition to the centers already available in Colombo, Kurunegala and Chilaw) in high migrant worker prevalent areas island-wide, specifically aims at supporting the Government to achieve their mission of upgrading the quality of migrant workers and establishing a niche for Sri Lankan workers in the international job market.

Speaking on the initiative, Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion & Welfare, Hon. Keheliya Rabukwella stated that “This programme will further meet the objectives of Mahinda Chinthana, particularly the Jathika Saviya Gamma Nagumma Programme which is targeting 4000 villages, by providing them the opportunity of receiving training in Information Technology.” He asserted that the time has come to rethink our “Foreign Employment” policy where export of unskilled personnel will be minimized, to be replaced by knowledge based vocations that earn higher foreign exchange much needed to the country. “On evaluation of certain social, cultural and moral values of the nation and the implications it entails on the social fabric and the family in particular among others, the dispatch of unskilled and lower paid employees for vocations abroad would have to be curtailed. Therefore the training on IT would further strengthen the paradigm shift of foreign employment which Sri Lanka envisages to attain, not only through training opportunities at urban levels but even in the rural sectors,” he added.

Their empowerment through the acquiring of a marketable skill, and the facilitating of efficient communication skills to prevent family dysfunctions, is a major concern for SLANA too, in relation to their strategies for minimizing substance use.

“This project meets our vision to provide pro-active leadership for formulating and initiating effective strategies for developing skills of vulnerable citizens, and empowering them to contribute and participate in the development process of the country. It also supports our efforts for promoting interventions that are timely, creative and practical as an approach.  Most important to us is that it will assist in the positive utilization of human capital for the development of the country, which would otherwise erode through substance use caused by family dysfunctionality, and prevent the negative impact on remittances if wasted on drugs, law enforcement and rehabilitation,” said Dharshinie Guniyangoda, Director – SLANA.

The concept called “World Home” has been created as a means of dispelling workers’ home sickness and loneliness by helping them keep in touch with their families by acquiring training in communication technology. Providing value added services to migrant workers and broadening their thinking through global exposure via ICT, which will also assist them when seeking new job opportunities and job market trends overseas.

Commenting on this partnership, Sriyan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Country Manager – Microsoft Sri Lanka said, “Adding value and dignity to migrant workers is of national importance – raising their skill set and profile in the international market place will benefit not only the families of these workers but also the country as a whole. This project was launched to expose migrant workers to the benefits of technology and to facilitate insights to the global environment. By improving their technical aptitude, we hope to empower them with the capacity to harness access and apply the knowledge gained, on activities related to their work and settings. We hope this project will create the potential for new economic activity, and employment opportunities enhancing their productivity through ICT while also enabling easier communication among families and friends. It is our desire that this effort at facilitating digital access will help them develop self confidence and broader outlooks, while raising the quality of their lives and in the long term, helping the nation battle poverty and low living standards.”

This project hopes to implement a five to six day training program in all three languages (for all age groups) based on a module which is an abridged version of the Unlimited Potential (UP) curriculum, especially developed to enhance the migrant workers and their families’ ability to stabilize their lives as a result of access to new technologies. All trainees receive a 100% practical training, especially since most of them have never even touched a computer before. By the end of the course though, trainees are surfing the net, chatting, e-mailing, sending images etc., with the greatest of ease. This certificate course, which includes a combination of basic and advanced computer skills (inclusive of training in the Sinhalese package), is to be held at the SLBFE and other NGO training centers.

In addition, there will be mentoring services by a volunteer migrant returnee who would share his/her experience of working in a foreign country with other potential workers, and assist in the familiarization process, preparation for life overseas and adapting to a foreign environment. There will also be low cost communication access for migrant workers and their families trained at these centers through an ID scheme at the Nansalas, SLFEB, SLANA and other NGO centers. This initiative will help replace traditional high cost communication modalities by facilitating more efficient channels for communication between workers and families, which will help them reduce communication costs and also provide them sophisticated yet, easy way to communicate with their family members efficiently and effectively.

Chairman of SLBFE, Mr. Kingsley Ranawaka stated that “Through the implementation of the first phase of this project in three centers we have been able to assess that training in ICT is well received by migrant workers. Many who did not see it as important as not being associated with their particular vocational pursuits aboard are now beginning to understand its usefulness in their daily lives as a low cost communication tool. Through this partnership we are embarking on  a national level capacity building of  Migrants and their family members, intending  to  encourage participation and enthusiasm in  the training with a passion for ICT not only as a powerful tool in communication but as means for improving future job prospects and economic stability even upon return.”

This programme will not only guide migrant workers, but also their families and returnees, on how best to utilize their savings earned abroad, to develop business plans, build capacity for self employment and successful entrepreneurship ventures towards positive returns on investments etc., The course will also help create a better understanding amidst these workers, on the importance of ICT as an additional skill, particularly in relation to enhancing their employability and being able to be on a equal playing field when faced with the ever evolving world of technology and job trends.

“I got an opportunity to go to Singapore and work, and simultaneously I participated in the Microsoft-SLANA-SLBFE training programme, where I learnt to surf the net etc. Thereafter, I was able to learn more about a childhood passion I had to be a beautician and as a result, managed to open up a saloon on Sri Lanka, just two years after my arrival back into the country. This training programme was the turning point in my life, and now I’m determined to work towards making my goal a success,” said Nithya Kalyani, a true success story of the programme.

Having decided to go abroad as a migrant worker, Mrs. Alwis, whose husband’s income was inadequate for them to raise a child as well, learnt a lot about her destination-to-be via this programme, she says. “I knew nothing about Cyprus before I started the course but, by the time I left, I knew everything I needed to know about the country and even managed to locate some online friends there, so there would be some friendly faces at that end too. I also didn’t know anything about computers but now I want to pass on my knowledge to my son too, as it’s sure to benefit him in the future,” added Mrs. Alwis.
A mother of two, K. Mahesha Dilrukshi Perera and her husband H. W. D. Inesh Samantha, having both undergone the training course, were both elated at being able to communicate with their son almost daily, thus bridging the distance between them and their son when they were out of the country working. “The invaluable knowledge we learnt at this training helped us see our future much clearer. Now even if I’m not around, I can still keep in touch with them and join in their ups and downs, as my family can now keep me updated on everything that’s going on in their lives,” explained Samantha.

Living with his mother and siblings in Wellawaya, where he runs a small fresh fruit business, Prabath Rukshan got a chance to go to South Korea recently and thus, attended the programme. “I received a basic knowledge of the computer and capacity building training. Also, as one of my sisters works in Bahrain, I managed to communicate with her via her friend there. Unfortunately, my sister didn’t have this opportunity available to her before she left. Now, I have a dream to export fruits, for which I need to raise some capital over the next couple of years and brush up on my IT skills as well so I can pursue my career from there onward,” he added.