ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 2, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 14
Financial Times  

Foreign employment of housemaids at any cost - letter

Thousands of people are signing petitions in support of Rizana Rafeek, who was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for allegedly choking an infant. It is horrifying to hear the stories of the suffering of Sri Lankan housemaids accepting work in Middle Eastern countries that have not ratified the UN Convention on Human Rights of Migrant Workers.

The Foreign Employment Bureau (FEB) has taken a progressive step in insisting on the registration of all migrant workers with the FEB, that has resulted in a significant drop in the number of complaints. The reluctance however to take further steps appears to be based on the following misconceptions:

Foreign exchange earned by housemaids
Our representative in Kuwait has rightly recommended an increase in the minimum wage of a housemaid from US $ 150 to 250. In contrast, a study of the foreign exchange earned by a worker in a medium sized group of garment factories was found to be US$ 470, while the average earnings inclusive of all incentive payments, EPF and ETF were found to be US$ 190.

The basic wage accounts for approximately 50% of the total earnings.

This shows that the foreign exchange earnings of a worker in a garment factory is two to three times the foreign exchange earned by a housemaid, often working in the Middle East.

There are vacancies for machine operators and trainees in practically every garment factory spread throughout the country. CEO, Brandix Group- Ashroff Omar, in his address at the Presidential Export Awards ceremony welcomed the availability of the pool of labour created by the clearing of the East to feed the shortage of labour in the garment industry.

If the shortage of machine operators is a critical factor in the size of orders accepted by a factory, we are losing more foreign exchange by allowing this scarce resource to work in countries that does not abide by the UN Convention on human rights of migrant workers.

The labour shortage in the garment industry, as well as in many other industries makes nonsensical claims that the poor girls are forced to seek foreign employment because of the slow creation of employment opportunities in Sri Lanka.

Bargaining power
I had the pleasure of representing the FCCISL in the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) when Mahinda Samarasinghe was the Minister of Employment and Labour. With his experience in working at the ILO office, he won the admiration of the unions and the employer organisations, with his skilful manner of conducting the meetings.

Today he is the minister in charge of human rights. The minister of foreign employment is Keheliya Rambukwella who has also displayed his communication skills as a government spokesman on security issues. Two of them are quite capable of harnessing the resources of the ILO, IOM and human rights organisations to collaborate with other countries that allow women to accept work as housemaids and pressurise all countries to become signatories to the UN and other international conventions guaranteeing the rights of migrant workers.

It is a common practice in the Middle East for employers to take over the passports of housemaids to minimise their mobility. In 2001, the privatisation of the National Insurance Corporation(NIC) provided the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation (SLIC) an opportunity to bid for the insurance of foreign employment seekers through the FEB.

The SLIC with the assistance of SriLankan Airlines and the Department of Immigration and Emigration offered an enhanced insurance cover that included the scanning and retention of the passport details of the insured workers, to permit SriLankan Airlines officials to issue air tickets under the insurance cover to all housemaids in distress immediately. Unfortunately, the FEB rejected the enhanced offer because of time constraints and the repatriation of housemaids in distress, free of charge by the government. The Bureau should review this passport scanning procedure to help officials to offer new passports to housemaids in distress who flock to our embassies in Middle Easter countries. This will minimise the exploitation of helpless housemaids by some employers in these countries.

I hope this letter will receive the sympathetic consideration of the respective ministers and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has been a Minister of Labour.

Lal de Mel
Past President of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry Sri Lanka and past Chairman
Sri Lanka Insurance.


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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.