Work from Sri Lanka – Is it legal?
By Sarrah Sammoon
With the rise of the digital economy and the future of work emphasising on work-life balance, a popular choice among millennials has been “digital nomadism”. The concept promotes productive work while maintaining ultimate freedom. The once-attractive photos of young executives in shorts, t-shirts, and swimwear working on their laptops by the ocean has now, with this pandemic become even more of a norm, from boomers to Gen Z.
First of all, it is important to understand, who is a “digital nomad”, also called a “remote worker” or “location-independent worker”. A typical digital nomad would switch between several countries over a span of a few years. In Sri Lanka, some choose to live here and travel for work to other countries. They do not work for Sri Lankan entities and neither do they enter our labour market, but they do spend money here. They rent properties, buy vehicles, hire help, eat at restaurants, travel around the island, and even use co-working spaces. There is also cultural exchange.
There are several social media groups dedicated to assisting digital nomads navigate life in Sri Lanka. A set of very excited expatriates exploring our island while working online mostly for overseas companies to support their lifestyles.
However, the Sri Lankan Government currently has no visa for digital nomads. They are almost all on tourist visas here. That raises the question about the legality of this sector. Current regulations indicate that in order to work in Sri Lanka, you require a line ministry recommendation and a work permit. But traditional work in this context means working for a company in Sri Lanka and entering the Sri Lankan labour market, or representing an overseas company and promoting their services in Sri Lanka.
Neither are the case when it comes to foreign remote workers. Our immigration laws like in most countries were drafted way before the Internet era and does not provide provisions for changes to evolving business trends. Further, it does not clearly state what exactly constitutes work, thus making these digital nomads who are working in Sri Lankan technically illegal.
With the pandemic, countries starved for tourism and human resources are quickly rolling out digital nomad visas or similar short-term visas that are valid for a year or more, while promoting their countries as exotic places to ride out the virus. Good examples are Estonia, Bermuda, Georgia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Dubai (UAE), Germany, Iceland, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Anguilla.
Jacob Gershman wrote in The Wall Street Journal that consultants who work with companies and expats say these so-called digital-nomad visa programmes are an experiment in propping up commerce and tourism by tapping into the economic power of wanderlust.
It would make sense for Sri Lanka to offer a programme for digital nomads, as it would provide benefits such as:
Compliance: Recognising these expatriates as foreign remote workers and creating a tourism subset for them and ensuring that no one violates our immigration laws
Additional revenue: Digital Nomads will more than likely be willing to pay a higher visa fee for a longer visa to live here and may be even obtain a medical or insurance locally
Due diligence: Identifying digital nomads allows our government to know more about the people coming to Sri Lanka and their work versus allowing them to be under the radar as tourists
Supporting the shift in paradigm: Clearly several companies globally have shifted to accept that you no longer need to come into office and can work from anywhere.
Sri Lanka can capture this tourism market while placing regulations that support and are aligned with the objectives of the “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” manifesto.
Talking to a digital nomad living in Galle recently, she revealed: “I love living in Galle and working, because unlike when I am in Colombo, it always reminds me that I live on an island.” Sri Lanka can capitalise by regulating the digital nomad trend and allowing the tourism industry to design attractive packages for them.
(The author has 26 years of experience in facilitating immigration compliance and global mobility solutions for multinational companies. She is a Certified Global Mobility Specialist – USA, EURA and Member of the Investment Migration Council, Switzerland.)
Update: In July 2021, the Cabinet of Ministers cleared a proposal to offer visas for foreign visitors looking to work remotely and stay in Sri Lanka for long periods. The move came in the wake of the country being ranked second-best for Digital Nomads in 2021 by the influential French travel and tourism operator – Club Med. However, as of January 2022, the Government is yet to decide and implement this system.