COLOMBO: Sri Lanka on Tuesday reduced to 21 the minimum age at which women can go abroad to work as the country’s bankrupt economy is in desperate need of foreign currency inflows.
For months, Sri Lanka has lacked the foreign currency to buy all that it needs from abroad. The country of 22 million people last month defaulted on a multimillion-dollar foreign debt payment, deepening its worst crisis since it gained independence in 1948.
There have been extreme shortages of fuel, food, and lately also a lack of medicines, which has brought the health system to the verge of collapse. Inflation is now running at 40 percent.
Remittances from overseas Sri Lankan workers have long been a key source of foreign exchange for the country.
The most important source of inflows is the Middle East, which is home to more than 1 million Sri Lankan nationals — 66 percent of the country’s migrant workers. To work in the Middle East, however, women were previously required to be a minimum of 23 years old.
The age limit has been lowered to 21 years on a recommendation made by the Ministry of Foreign Employment, Mass Media Minister Bandula Gunawardena told reporters, adding that the rules have been eased to “get more job opportunities and earn more dollars for the country at a time it is facing a severe economic crisis.”
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that Sri Lanka will need $5 billion during the next six months to tide it over the economic turmoil.
Remittances from Sri Lankans used to bring in about $7 billion a year before coronavirus lockdowns in 2020. During the pandemic, they dropped to $5 billion in 2021, and as the country went bankrupt, not more than $3 billion was expected this year.
The decision to expand the country’s migrant workforce to younger women was immediately welcomed by manpower agencies who are expecting an increase in offers for household staff.
“Most of the sponsors who hire maidservants prefer to have young maids between 21 and 25 since they are energetic and their output of work is much more than the elderly women,” Saheed Mohamed Jaufer, managing director of New Kingdom Manpower in Colombo, told Arab News.
“This is a welcome sign since more young women can go for foreign employment.”
But the move may also have adverse social consequences for the country itself.
Fawaza Thaha, president of the Young Muslim Women’s Association, said that while the government’s efforts to address the economic crisis have been appreciated, the new age limit “would attract the young girls and they would discontinue their studies to earn their money in foreign currencies.”
“The outcome will be young girls abandoning their studies for the sake of greener pastures, which is not a healthy sign for developing countries such as Sri Lanka,” she told Arab News.