Was Rizana’s death in vain?

( January 20, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The biggest developments to affect Sri Lanka in recent times – the impeachment of the chief justice and the tragic beheading of an underage Sri Lankan housemaid – - had contrasting follow-ups this week.

While lawyers and human rights groups, backed by international groups and foreign governments, expressed concern over the ouster of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and the campaign continued, though less aggressive than before, the case of Rizana Nafeek appears to have disappeared from the public domain.

To a large extent it confirmed the fears expressed in last week’s editorial that protests and concerns would fizzle out and the issues confronting migrant workers, particularly domestics, would remain on the backburner, as a non-priority issue for any one including the government and the entire opposition – the United National Party (UNP), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or the Tamil National Alliance. Were these parties not concerned about the plight of migrant workers vis-a-vis the Rizana case and chose to only concentrate on the impeachment, political issues and cost of living this week? Not a word was said about the unfortunate Sri Lankan woman.
One local politician, holding forth on the impeachment when asked about Rizana, responded, “Rizana Kawde?)

It was not only political actors but also the media and NGOs groups that failed to focus on Rizana and the case of migrant workers. It’s clearly not a ‘sexy’ enough topic to draw attention compared to the impeachment, cost of living, or Mervyn Silva histrionics.
To prove the point further, a cursory glance of Page 1 of all the daily Sinhala, Tamil and English-language newspapers on Friday, January 18 revealed not a word on migrant workers vis—a-vis Rizana. The pages were dominated with the impeachment, violence, consumer prices and the rumbustious and annoying Mervyn Silva. There was, in fact, little reported during the entire week (on Page 1) on any follow up to Rizana’s case. Are we not a caring society? Have we lost all sense of balance?

On the other hand Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare Dilan Perera in a typical knee-jerk reaction said they planned to raise the minimum age of recruitment for domestic workers to 25 years. The minimum age issue, to prevent younger and less matured women from working in the Middle East as domestics, has dogged Sri Lanka for many years with Ministers then and now making all kinds of promises and backing out or such proposals not seeing the light of day, for the right or wrong reasons. The point is that rather than respond to a crisis, every decision must be taken with proper consensus, discussion with a broader forum.

There were times when it was suggested that women with infants should be banned from working abroad and now, pressure from various groups, to ban domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, the largest recruiter of Sri Lankan workers to the Middle East.

The ‘ban’ campaign is also another knee-jerk response from a country that has little clout in the labour-migration arena unlike the Philippines for example which last year imposed a minimum wage condition for recruitment to Saudi Arabia. That led to a Saudi ban on domestic workers from the Philippines. Finally Saudi agreed to pay the higher wage because of demand for skilled domestics from the Philippines. Could Sri Lanka command the same authority on wages?

The issue of Rizana is not only about under-aged migrant workers, stressful condition for domestic workers, repressive laws or slavery. It’s about jobs, jobs and jobs. Would the government or those groups campaigning for a ban on domestic workers to the Middle East be ready to provide jobs or an economically, better option to women from very, poor backgrounds whose only hope for a better life for their families is a job in the Middle East?

There are much wider issues at stake in the entire gamut of the migrant worker sector that needs to be addressed particularly awareness to would-be migrants about laws and working conditions in other countries.

Last week we said, “Once the protests and demonstrations against Nafeek’s death fizzle out in the next few weeks, issues facing migrant workers would continue to remain unresolved. It is the responsibility of every Sri Lankan to work towards the betterment of our brothers and sisters toiling abroad to ensure the rest here have a better life. Only then would Nafeek’s death have not been in vain.”

It’s clearly evident now that only a few groups and individuals would continue, strenuously and diligently (without any private agendas) to campaign for the rights of domestic workers and low skilled male workers in the Middle East.

While addressing issues relating to the war against corruption and adherence to governance accountability and transparency in both the public and private sectors, the Business Times will continue to champion the plight of migrant workers who are not only a vital part of the economy with their ‘untouched’ remittances – unlike export cash spent on raw materials in other export sectors -, but also because they are people like you and me and not commodities like garments, tea or jewellery.

– Courtesy – Business Times

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