ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 27, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 48
Financial Times  

Soul-searching by job agents

By Feizal Samath

Kuwait – Two groups of employment agents from Sri Lanka and Kuwait came together here on Wednesday and pledged to work to create more jobs, provide support and welfare to migrant workers and reduce the problems faced by thousands of housemaids.

In what would be considered a landmark move for the migrant worker industry in Sri Lanka, the two groups met at a hotel here in the capital and agreed that the crisis plaguing the industry where housemaids have suffered harassment, rape, abuse, assault and non-payment of wages at the hands of employers was partly their fault, and they should take responsibility. “We have to stop blaming others and take responsibility for this state of affairs.

These things wouldn’t have happened if we – on both sides of the trade – didn’t have proper contracts, proper selection of workers, etc,” noted Suraj Dandeniya, President of the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agents (ALFEA) of Sri Lanka. Agreed Zain Milhan, President of the Sri Lanka Manpower Association of Kuwait (SLMAK): “How do we get a good name? How do we be responsible, do good business? Are we concerned only about commissions and making money? Shouldn’t we run a good business … a good trade?” SLMAK represents some 90 percent of the foreign employment business in Kuwait, Sri Lanka’s second largest labour-generating market with more than 100,000 jobs after Saudi Arabia, just across the border from here. Kuwait is the only country where Sri Lankans control the foreign employment market.

Many of the job agency business, in which Kuwaiti’s are owners as per local rules, are managed by Sri Lankans, some of whom are resident here for more than 18 years like SLMAK’s Milhan, seen as a dynamic force here. The Kuwaiti association worried about the issues facing migrant workers and because the trade was getting a bad name - (“While flying in business or first class if someone asks me what my business is, my instant reply is ‘travel agent’ because ‘job agent’ has many negatives,” says Milhan) – invited a 30-member delegation through ALFEA to Kuwait for serious discussion on how both sides could do some damage control and bring respectability to an industry that is soon heading to be Sri Lanka’s main foreign exchange earner.

During three days of discussion and meetings between themselves and also with Sri Lankan ambassador S.A.C.M. Zuhyle, the two sides finally signed an MoU on Thursday and a pledge to ‘do good business and ensure people are protected’. Wednesday’s meeting was not without problems. During a near-3 hour meeting, both sides hurled accusations at each other with agents based in Sri Lanka blaming their colleagues here on various issues while themselves facing charges that some of the housemaids sent were unfit, had medical problems or had other issues. At the embassy here, Ambassador Zuhyle told The Sunday Times FT that some 1,000 workers should never have been sent to Kuwait in the first place.

He said of the 1057 cases of housemaids who were sent home last year from Kuwait, nearly 800 cases were that of ‘illness from heriditary,’ failed medical tests, had undergone major surgery before coming here, mentally unfit, pregnant on arrival, had infants at home and were underage.

“They should never have been selected in the first place,” he said, adding that the majority of the problems would be eliminated if proper selections are made. However despite some bitter, outspoken thoughts by agents from both sides of the fence at Wednesday’s meeting, there was a clear recognition of the need for the two associations to work together to minimize the problems faced by Sri Lankan workers. Another source of worry and concern expressed by most all the delegates – from Sri Lanka and Kuwait – was reported remarks in the media some weeks back by President Mahinda Rajapaksa about the government contemplating a ban on the sending of housemaids overseas because of the problems they face in addition to the problems at home when they leave. While there hasn’t been any denial or clarification so far of these comments, the industry is in a state of uncertainty.

“If that happens we are all finished,” said one agent here. “Also what happens to the 600,000 to 700,000 housemaids who are employed in the Middle East? Who will give them jobs?” he asked. Some 100 agents at Wednesday’s meeting acknowledged that they had a huge responsibility to ensure that workers are not harassed, abused, victimized, raped, killed and that wages are paid on time and that wages as per contract are paid. This is one of the rare occasions where job agents are taking responsibility for the plight of housemaids.

(The writer was among two journalists invited by the Sri Lanka Manpower Association of Kuwait (SLMAK) to cover the meetings. The SLMAK sponsored the entire delegation from Sri Lanka).


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