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

Historic moments for housemaids

Thousands of miles away in Kuwait city, history was in the making this week. For the first time, employment agents from Sri Lanka and Kuwait – at the butt end of criticism and accusations of not taking responsibility for the plight of hundreds of housemaids – were now acknowledging their mistakes and pledging to correct weaknesses in the system.

For the first time, they were not passing the buck to the government or the Foreign Employment Bureau (FEB) and absolving themselves of responsibility. What has resulted in this change of heart? We believe it’s essentially two issues – growing criticism of the job agents and reported remarks by President Mahinda Rajapaksa of a possible ban by the end of the year on sending housemaids for employment overseas and more focus of male-dominated jobs.

A group of 30 agents from Sri Lanka and some 200 of their counterparts in Kuwait on Thursday witnessed the signing of a MoU by the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agents (ALFEA) which represents 800 agents in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Manpower Association of Kuwait (SLMAK) which represents the bulk of the foreign employment business here.

Under this both sides pledged to work together to completely eliminate the problems faced by migrant workers. Both Suraj Dandeniya, President - ALFEA, and Zain Milhan, President – SLMAK, told the meeting that by this time next year if 50 percent of the problems encountered by housemaids are eliminated, this would be a great victory for the industry.

Although happening only in Kuwait which has little over 100,000 Sri Lankan migrants (the second largest concentration of Sri Lankan workers after Saudi Arabia) of the over one million Sri Lankans spread across the Middle East, the initiative to acknowledge their ‘mistakes’ and weaknesses in the system is a giant step forward is bringing in some respectability to the work of housemaids and the profession of the job agent. Many agents are reluctant to publicly acknowledge the work they do, in many cases saying they are in the ‘travel’ agent business rather than ‘job agent’ business which gives a negative connotation. In fact quite a few uses the ‘travel agency’ tag in their registration or business operations though their main business is recruitment.

Among the issues faced by housemaids which have been documented by the media for more than two decades now are abuse, harassment, rape, inability to work long hours, not getting the contracted wage or non-payment of wages. In many cases, housemaids hide some of their most essential details in pursuing jobs: medically unfit, pregnancies, having undergone major surgery, or family-related illnesses. On the other hand, job agents – in a hurry to make money – do away with the basic role of screening applicants and making sure they are suitable in terms of capacity to work long hours, medically fit, etc.

At the Kuwaiti discussions between the two sides, agents based in Kuwait (who provide the job contracts to their Sri Lankan counterparts) blamed their colleagues for not sending the best talent available while facing accusations that the blame was because the employer or sponsor was the problem. The two associations are now working on proper screening of housemaids at the Colombo end and working on a system where a ‘bad’ employer is blacklisted. The Kuwait employment agents are mostly Sri Lankans who run the business as managers on behalf of their Kuwaiti owners. Only Kuwaitis can own licences to run employment agencies as per local rules, a situation that prevails in most Middle East countries.

However Kuwait is unique because the Sri Lankan managers are ‘hands on’ in the business and take responsibility for much of the issues that occur at this end. While there are bound to be teething problems in the enforcement of the ‘come clean in our business’ initiative by the two associations, the acknowledgement of taking responsibility for the problems are small but positive steps towards taking the migrant worker to a higher level – that of gaining the respect of society.

After all no one can deny that the country depends on migrant workers – fast becoming the biggest source of foreign exchange – for economic survival.


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