ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 9, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 41

It’s the same old story of woe, but it’s still very real

As runaway housemaids flock to the makeshift shelter at the Sri Lankan Consulate in Dubai, waiting for a flight back home, questions regarding foreign employment still loom large

From Leon Berenger in Dubai

It is the same old story with the same old characters- nevertheless it has to be told once again lest this group ends up as a forgotten tribe. Day in and day out they come tapping at the door of the Sri Lankan Consulate in Dubai, each of them having a separate sad story of their own and begging with officials for a safe and quick passage back home to their families and loved ones.

The bulk of them are low-income wage earners such as house maids, factory hands. Janitors etc and almost 95 per cent are females from the interior of Sri Lanka. With little or no education and with almost zero knowledge of the laws and regulations of a foreign country, the only place they could seek safety and solace is the Consulate.

The major complaint by these workers is the non-payment of wages by their employers, despite the work contracts being endorsed by all parties concerned and well within the legitimate procedures. So in the back yard of the Consulate in Dubai a make-shift shelter has been set up to accommodate these unfortunate individuals, where they are given food, counselling and above all an assurance of a safe passage back home.

Seeking refuge: Lankan housemaids at the temporary shelter at the Dubai Consulate

At present some 27 women are housed in this shelter-made of two rooms and there is little space to take in any more, says Wasantha Senanayake, Consular General in Dubai. He said the Consulate is handling at least five to six such cases on a daily basis.

“When an individual case is referred up with the respective recruiting agent in Sri Lanka, they immediately accuse the worker of breaching the contract owing to home sickness and other reasons. To a small extent this may be true, but it isn’t so for all the cases,” Mr. Senanayake said.

The bulk of the workers complain that the agents after charging large sums of money promise them employment in garment factories, hospitals or in European households saying they could earn what they paid the agents, in a matter of two months. But the story is very much different for many once they arrive in the Emirates. They often find themselves dumped into middle-class homes where the employer lives in a crammed flat and the maid has to sleep on the floor.

This is not all, says S. Zain, Labour Attaché at the Consulate. On day one the employer takes the passport into custody, holds back at least two months wages as a security deposit and keeps the maid incommunicado for the same period to prevent her from being influenced from outside sources.

This naturally leads to frustration, depression, home sickness and hence the main reason to desert, Mr. Zain added. Most of them have either borrowed money from local loan sharks or mortgaged whatever family property they owned to make the trip and now they find themselves in the most hopeless situations, he added.

However, he stressed that unlike in other Gulf nations, the laws in Dubai are straight forward in more ways than one. “When it comes to labour issues there are no protected species, whether they are locals or otherwise,” Mr. Zain said. It has been revealed that most of the abusing employers are those outside the GCC (Gulf Countries Co-operation) such as Syrians, Jordanians, Egyptians and to a lesser extent even Indians, according to Mr. Zain.

There are also other officials who feel, but won’t openly say so, that the Sri Lanka Bureau For Foreign Employment is not doing enough to help these runaway workers, even though it continues to extract millions of rupees annually in the form of a so-called insurance cover from West Asian bound employment seekers.

“These monies are meant to be used in situations such as this, but the Bureau apparently thinks otherwise and allows the matter to reach boiling point before they eventually come up with some kind of assistance,” they said.

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