They go in search of jobs, but find abuse

by Muralidhar Reddy
Courtesy: The Hindu

Violation of the basic rights of the Sri Lankan women migrant workers is a serious issue as legal systems offer little or no protection to them.

(November, 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A few months ago a Sri Lankan migrant worker, Razia Nafeek, was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia on the charge of smothering to death her employer’s child. Razia, 17, who hailed from a poor family in the Muttur town in the east, secured employment by concealing her real age. Driven by poverty, she was forced to migrate and ended up as a domestic aid. The tiny tot she was accused of killing was among the 10 children under her care.

After the media and human rights organizations took up her case, numerous appeals have been made to the Saudi government to spare her life. The system in the Saudi Kingdom is so rigid and loaded against migrant workers that the well-orchestrated campaign for pardon to Razia has made little impact. Her case mirrors the travails and traumas of thousands like her from Sri Lanka, languishing as house maids in different parts of West Asia.

The latest report of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), "Exported and Exposed: Abuses Against Sri Lankan Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates," documents the serious abuses domestic workers face at every step of the migration process. The report is based on 170 interviews with domestic workers, government officials, and labour recruiters conducted in Sri Lanka and West Asia.

Abuse and violation of basic rights of women workers are a serious issue as legal systems in the island nation as well as in the countries, where they are employed, offer little or no protection. As per government statistics, there are 6,60,000 Sri Lankan women employed as domestic workers, nearly 90 per cent in Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — countries that lack standard legal protection for domestic workers.

In addition, an estimated 1, 25,000 women migrate every year to different parts of the world, mainly West Asia, to land menial jobs.

Income for the government
The remittances by migrant laborers are a crucial source of foreign exchange for the Sri Lankan government. In 2006, they brought in foreign exchange worth $2.3 billion, accounting for nine per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Next only to apparel, remittances are the largest source of income for the government. Yet every single day, according to the HRW, at least 50 women return

home "in distress."
As per the HRW research, Sri Lankan women domestic workers faced a range of abuses and exploitation, many of which were gender-specific. "Our research shows that they face pervasive workplace abuses: they generally work excessively long hours, get no rest days, and are paid discriminatory wages, including earning less than their male migrant counterparts. In these four labour-receiving countries, Sri Lankan women domestic workers also suffer physical, psychological and sexual abuse; non-payment of wages; food deprivation; confiscation of their identity documents; forced confinement in the workplace; and limitations on their ability to return to their home countries when they wish to do so."

"In some cases, the combination of these pervasive workplace abuses creates a situation in which women workers are trapped in forced labour. Countries of employment in the Middle East [West Asia] admit migrant domestic workers as short-term contract laborers and accord them few rights. The labour laws of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the UAE categorically exclude migrant domestic workers from protection. The governments of those countries deny migrant domestic workers equal protection under their country’s laws and limit their ability to change employers, even in cases of abuse," says the report.

Statistics show that the proportion of women migrants has increased significantly over the past 20 years — from 33 per cent in 1986 to 79 in 1994 and 59 now. The phenomenon began in 1976, following a sharp escalation in oil prices in the oil-rich Gulf countries. As demand for male construction workers decreased in the 1980s, a growing percentage of Sri Lankan women migrated to West Asia to work as domestic workers. In the 1990s, 84 per cent of all migrants from Sri Lanka to West Asia were women, most them domestic workers.

Pension scheme
Taking note of the important reforms by the Sri Lankan government to alleviate the sufferings of migrant labourers, including introduction of a pension scheme and free medical care, the HRW has urged it to further streamline the systems. It has asked the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion to provide the workers training and information about their rights before they migrate, and to monitor and regulate labour agents and their sub-agents.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should improve services to domestic workers at Embassies in times of crisis. The government also should improve complaint mechanisms and services provided to domestic workers after they return home," the report said. The HRW urged the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the UAE to extend standard labour protection to domestic workers, change immigration laws that make it difficult for workers to change employers, and ensure compensation to workers who suffer abuse.

The report lamented that the government failed to adequately monitor and regulate abusive practices by recruiting agents and sub-agents in Sri Lanka. Consular officials often provided little or no assistance to the domestic workers who approached them with complaints of unpaid wages or abuse. Those returning home had to confront obstacles while filing complaints and received minimal services at a government-run shelter located near the international airport.