Foreign Employment- Opportunities and Dangers for professional and domestic employees

"There is a myth that Sri Lanka is a country provides only housemaids who are in fact housekeepers who manages the household work which is a very responsible job. It is time that we upgrade them by educating and providing with all round and modern knowledge and training for their own protection if we were to continue to provide housekeepers."

by Sarath Wijesinghe

Foreign Employment

(October 08, UAE, Sri Lanka Guardian) Foreign employment has overshadowed the traditional incomes of many labour producing countries in Asia and Africa. Employees from Asia are educated, forward and demanding. Opportunities in the host countries mainly the Middle East are ever growing due to the demand and disproportionate development schemes as a result of enormous oil wealth. The white collar professionals in the Middle and the Western countries are well looked after, insured and protected. This is not the case for unskilled lower labour and most specifically the domestic aides. The pathetic situation of domestic aides are serious and alarming and needs urgent attention. Most Asian countries have stopped sending domestic aides to host countries. It is only Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Philippines are the countries providing domestic labour to the host countries.

Domestic worker

A domestic worker, a domestic or a servant is one who works and lives within the employer’s household. They are distinguishable from scrfs services or slaves in that they are compensated, that is they must receive payment for their work. They are supposed to be free to leave their employment at any time which is not the case in the Middle East because according to the “sponsor scheme” the travel documents are in the possession of the sponsor. Unless the sponsor releases the travel documents the domestic is unable to leave the country. This situation is not acceptable. There is a news that Kuwait Government is taking steps to do away with the system of sponsorship. Domestic workers take care of the household and it’s dependent members. Their working hours are not limited. They are not protected by labour laws. There are reports of torture, harassment, rape of the employees working under difficult conditions. With all this the demand for foreign employment especially in the domestic sector is ever growing.

Foreign employment has overshadowed the traditional incomes such as tea, rubber and coconut in Sri Lanka. It is an income that derives with minimum investment, the investment is the free education given by the Government and the sweat which is easily available. This must be coupled with knowledge and experience for better prospects and benefits.

United Arab Emirates

Let us take an example of the United Arab Emirates which is one of the best in the Middle East on treatment of labour and foreigners. UAE is one of the best tourist destinations, a richest country in which Dubai is the hub of the area with extremely busy airport and the harbour. The local population is around 20% as against the 80% expatriates managing the country. Even though there are complaints from the labour sector there are avenues for redress and it is time for the parties concerned to take appropriate steps to develop the conditions.

Employment producing countries

Philippine is one of the major employment producing countries in which the labour force spread worldwide is protected by the Migration Act. Philippine migrants worldwide are trained, sophisticated and brings trillions of funds back to the country. In Sri Lanka the Foreign Employment Bureau set up in 1985 is performing an excellent job within their capacity which needs restructuring and improvements to cater to the current needs. His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa the President of Sri Lanka who has been once a successful Labour Minister has taken the Employment Bureau under the External Affairs Ministry which is a very welcome move. This step will strengthen and streamline the efficiency and effectiveness of the Foreign Employment Bureau to be supervised under the Foreign Missions spread worldwide. Reports received on labour from the host countries are pathetic and disturbing. But the good news is that these reports are not the order of the day. Even in the domestic sector sad stories are comparatively low when compared to the large number of employees employed. For example in Saudi Arabia there are over 400,000 domestic employees. In Kuwait around 500,000 and in the UAE the number of Sri Lankan employment is about 250,000. It is true that there are complaints of torture, inhuman treatment and harassment. Missions are maintaining safe houses for the victims. Every person affected has a very sad story back in Sri Lanka and in the host country. But the fact remains that these issues are things that could have been resolved if proper steps have been taken to control errant and dishonest employment agents in Sri Lanka and in the host countries. It is again good news that the government is taking appropriate steps to restructure the entire process and to close the loopholes by taking steps to take tough measures to streamline the system by punishing the errant and dishonest employment agencies.

Job opportunities

With this background job opportunities in the Middle East are increasing day by day. OPEC and GCEC countries have enormous wealth for the next few hundred years. They need foreign employees for their development. For example Dubai which has been a barren desert 45 years ago is a beehive of activities in the Middle East as a platform for the rest of the Middle East and Africa. The oil and the wealth they were gifted have been very wisely invested on the country for the future. The residents in these fortunate countries are comparatively low when compared to the enormity of the area and disproportionately rich wealth. Therefore as labour producing countries we must be ready to cater for the needs and to train our labour in those directions. The host countries need labour with knowledge of their respective languages IT, link language and technical knowledge. Sri Lanka is full of training centres managed by the State and private institutions. There is a grave need for a language centre or language centres not necessarily English though English is the best link language for Sri Lankans. For example learning Arabic will be an asset to a prospective employee from Sri Lanka. There are avenues for teachers, technicians, officers workers, factory workers and employees in all other sectors. Chinese, Japanese and Arabic are fast drawing link languages. China is going to be the world power in a decade or so. Middle East is going to be powerful as an Arabic speaking country as a region and GCEC too is fast growing as a region. Therefore it is time for us to have Sri Lankan institutions to meet the demands of the future employment armed with language and IT knowledge. When this writer met the Minister of Education in the UAE the discussions were cordial and there was a consensus that all assistance will be given to Sri Lanka to learn Arabic as a link language in addition there are things that we could learn from the progress of these countries which has elevated from a barren desert to productive countries with highest per capita and aiming to be powerful economies.

Trained skilled and professional labour

Sri Lankan professionals are treated in the highest esteem and respected in the West. Few decades ago they migrated to the West as professionals and the Sri Lankan Diaspora is powerful and ever-growing. They are almost settled in the West which give pride to the Nation, but their bonds are shared with two countries which is not the case of millions of labour force expected to return to their birth country one day. This is the difference between the two types of migrants who has left the country for better life for themselves and their children. The professionals and the skilled labour is well looked after because the host country needs them. They are protected by labour laws and in some cases even the families and children are looked after even though there were retrenchments and stoppage of work during the crisis. The good news is that now day by day economy is recovering and the potential for employment is ever growing. The potential for employment in all the sectors will be available for the next few decades as there is no way that the Middle East can replace the labour by themselves. This is a reality that we should understand and to cater to the needs of the future employees. In that context Sri Lanka needs more and more universities and technical colleges which cater for the need and not to produce ordinary graduates who are a burden to themselves and to the country. In the UAE the Free Trade Zone is in fact free even for any university in the world to set up their branches thereby students all over the world are looking forward to make use of this benefit.

Now it is time for us to find out ways and means to improve the quality of respective employees and take steps for their protection and future. It has to be done extremely carefully on different levels. It is time that Sri Lanka to enter into bilateral agreements and MOUs with the host countries based on the different legal systems. In this process the foreign missions will have to play a major role representing the government to use the good office in order to resolve the difficult areas based on consensus and mutual needs of both countries and the economic needs.

Image of the country and the workers

There is a myth that Sri Lanka is a country provides only housemaids who are in fact housekeepers who manages the household work which is a very responsible job. It is time that we upgrade them by educating and providing with all round and modern knowledge and training for their own protection if we were to continue to provide housekeepers. The country now needs our female labour for the upliftment of our economy and as far as possible we should try to curtail providing domestics unless on our terms and after giving them proper training. These are matters which are now seriously considered by Sri Lankan authorities for a better future for the families of prospective domestic aides. It is a very sad state that some sub agents in Sri Lanka are giving a very rosy picture on the life as domestic aides and giving false hopes and misrepresenting facts. There is a duty by the media to educate the prospective employees on the current and correct situation in host countries on the legal system and the difficulties. It is a good news that steps are being taken to train the lower employment grades to higher level such as office employees and higher grades in the employment sector. More than 600,000 Sri Lankan women work abroad as domestic workers, nearly 90% in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. The agents in Sri Lanka charge excessive fees leaving migrants heavily indebted and misinforming them of their jobs. Once abroad they are paid low income and have to work round the clock. The agents once their funds are collected sever their connections and responsibilities unless the employees are used again to be posted to other sponsors. This vicious circle has to be broken and streamlined. Bangladesh received almost US dollars two billion from the domestic aides. Though the country has difficulties they have completely given up sending domestic aides for employment. Sri Lanka need not completely curtail the system and what is needed is streamlining the mechanism which is now being processed in the right direction with the current changes. The Government will be taking steps in future for the welfare and protection of the employees on their return and to help the families through banks and other institutions to streamline their families and reactivate and reestablish their family union.

Grand opportunity

It is time for us to make the best use of this grand opportunity available for employment in the host countries. Our citizens serve two countries - they serve the host country by being employed and helping to develop their economy. On the other hand they remit valuable foreign exchange to the birth country to help their families and the economic development. They play a main role in lifting our nation to be the wonder of Asia in the next few years and the nation is grateful to those committed employees who sweat in the desert for the development of the nation.

The writer, Ambassador of Sri Lanka in the United Arab Emirates. He can be reached at
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