The government maintained minimal prevention efforts. The National Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force (NAHTTF) continued to meet, despite obstacles related to the pandemic lockdown, and finalized a new anti-trafficking NAP. NAHTTF drafted the 2021-2025 NAP with input from NGOs, international organizations, academics, and other relevant experts and in February 2021, the government adopted it, designating each task force member the lead on specific activities. Observers assessed that despite the efforts of the Ministry of Justice, the lead of the NAHTTF, insufficient coordination among NAHTTF members, and between the NAHTTF and civil society stakeholders, remained. The government, in coordination with an international organization, developed radio and TV campaigns to raise awareness of trafficking; distributed leaflets; and held forums with local officials, NGOs, and the public. The campaigns targeted potential victims, prospective migrant workers, and first responders, as well as the general public. In addition, SLBFE conducted awareness raising programs for prospective migrant workers within Sri Lanka and at some of its embassies abroad, particularly in the Middle East.
In January 2021, the government amended the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act No. 47 of 1956 to increase the minimum age of employment from 14 to 16 years old. Additionally, the law specified that a person between the ages of 16 and 18 may be employed but subject to conditions, including a prohibition from working in jobs defined as hazardous. The Department of Labor (DOL) also launched an official YouTube channel to raise awareness of the labor law and added five short videos on the hazardous forms of child labor. Labor inspectors identified and referred for prosecution six child labor violations in 2020. Labor inspectors only had the authority to inspect private residences for violations against child domestic workers if a complaint was received. Additionally, pandemic-related movement restrictions adversely impacted the ability of DOL to conduct inspections and collect evidence regarding complaints and led to a temporary suspension of routine inspections, although child labor inspections continued. Overall, in 2020, DOL conducted 44,439 labor inspections, including a special investigation into the fisheries industry which concluded there was not widespread child labor.
SLBFE maintained its ban on migration of male and female domestic workers younger than 21, female domestic workers younger than 25 to Saudi Arabia, and female domestic workers younger than 23 to other parts of the Middle East. SLBFE also required all female migrant workers younger than 45 to submit a “family background report” to ensure the woman did not have children younger than age five and that she had obtained either her husband or a guardian’s consent to work abroad; authorities did not require spousal or guardian consent for male migrant workers. Observers reported any ban on migration increased the likelihood of migrating illegally and therefore heightened vulnerability to human trafficking. Beginning in October 2020, agencies and individual sponsors were also required to obtain a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC) from the Sri Lankan Embassy for any female domestic worker migrating to Oman; this also required the worker to register with SLBFE. According to the new procedure, the Oman Police will only issue employment visas to Sri Lankan female domestic workers who submit both the NOC and an employment contract. To mitigate the risk of increased exploitation of domestic female migrant workers, the SLBFE issued a circular on December 30, 2020, instructing all licensed foreign employment agencies to submit a semi-annual report, starting February 1, 2021, that confirms the whereabouts of female domestic migrant workers until those workers return to Sri Lanka. The government did not make efforts to eliminate the legal fees that SLBFE and recruitment agencies charged to migrant workers, which increased workers’ vulnerability to labor traffickers. SLBFE required each migrant worker to pay a registration fee equivalent to more than one month’s salary that required renewal every two years. Additionally, an international report published in 2019 noted some workers reported recruitment agencies charged an additional 8,000 to 150,000 LKR ($43-$811). Some officials reported SLBFE’s lack of monitoring enabled agencies to charge fees in excess of the legal amounts; some workers paid as much as 1 million LKR ($5,410) for the entire recruitment process, including fees charged by illegal sub-agents. SLBFE’s unit at the main international airport in Colombo detected migrant workers who attempt to leave the country for employment abroad without proper registration. During the reporting period, the unit detected 12 individuals who attempted to go abroad for employment using tourist visas and 75 who did not have the proper documents for SLBFE registration. According to observers, during the pandemic, the government further limited outward migration and only permitted migration to a few countries involving a few licensed agents. For those Sri Lankan migrant workers overseas, the government negotiated with immigration authorities to waive penalties and other violations of immigration laws caused by the pandemic, facilitated free legal service, and secured general amnesty for migrant workers out of immigration status.
During the reporting period, SLBFE created an online system for registering and responding to complaints. Civil society and exploited migrant workers abroad continued to report cases of exploitative labor to SLBFE, including non-payment of wages, contract fraud, and document retention. SLBFE officers in the conciliation division do not always recognize elements of trafficking and may handle cases administratively, rather than referring the case to police. During the reporting period, SLBFE raided 30 recruitment agencies and filed cases against all 30 for illegal practices. This was a decrease from 252 raids in the previous reporting period, as SLBFE suspended three foreign recruitment agencies for illegal practices, compared to suspending 62 agencies the previous reporting period. SLBFE did not have the legal authority to regulate sub-agents, which officials recognized contributed to trafficking. The government continued to draft an amendment to the Foreign Employment Act to address the oversight of sub-agents and the investigative authority of MFE officials, including SLBFE.
The government did not report efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex. NCPA continued awareness campaigns targeted to parents and children on child abuse, including child sex tourism in Sri Lanka’s Coastal Belt. The government did not report efforts to reduce the demand for child sex tourism. Due to the pandemic foreign tourism largely came to halt in 2020. The NCPA continued to run a hotline to report child abuse. The hotline received 61 reports of child trafficking during the reporting period; it did not identify any victims or potential trafficking cases from these allegations, as the complaints are still under investigation. The government provided anti-trafficking training to its troops prior to their deployment as peacekeepers.