ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 4, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 49
Financial Times  

Three decades after migration, ‘housemaids’ still a crisis point

Blame game won’t solve problems

By Feizal Samath

The MoU being signed.

Some three decades after Sri Lankans began migrating to the Middle East for employment, the country is still coming to grips with a major issue – the plight of Sri Lankan housemaids in the country of work and the social breakdown in their families.While the job agent has been the favourite ‘punching’ bag for the problems faced by some 600,000 to 700,000 Sri Lankan housemaids overseas, most of us have on the other hand failed to take into account a key factor in the crisis: “Does the worker seek a job on their own accord or is coerced into employment?”

During a visit to Kuwait two weeks ago to witness the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between associations representing job agents in Sri Lanka and Kuwait, agents there and from Colombo complained of an ‘unfair’ media not looking at the ‘whole’ picture and instead relying only on the version of the housemaid. Agents, they said, were slandered and ridiculed when a housemaid had a problem.

“One of the biggest problems is that the worker is ill-prepared, doesn’t have a clue about household equipment or is coerced by fellow workers to jump ship (leave the home of the employer) and seek free-lance work outside. It is a selection problem and also ill-preparedness on the part of the housemaid,” noted Zain Milhan, President of the Sri Lanka Manpower Welfare Association (SLMWA) in Kuwait, pleading for a balanced approach by the media to the issue. “There are many sides to this crisis. Job agents are also at fault because selections are not good. On the other hand the housemaid must also take the blame for being ill-prepared or deciding to work overseas despite long hours, unfamiliar equipment, in an alien culture and unable to understand the language.”
Here are some stubborn facts:

Fiction: Housemaids are well briefed

Fact: They are clueless about what to expect at that end

Fiction: They are well trained prior to arrival

Fact: Washing machines at the training centre are 10-20 years outdated and semi automatic, according to one agent. Latest models are being used overseas and often break down due to ignorance or inability by workers to read instructions. They are penalised via cuts in wages for machine breakdown

Fiction: Sri Lankan housemaids should get a salary comparable with their Filipino counterparts because they possess the same skills

Fact: Filipino housemaids are better equipped to handle modern household equipment; they speak English, dress well and are sophisticated. Because of this, they can command a higher wage

However one established fact in Kuwait, confirmed by a senior official at a Kuwaiti Ministry handling employment of foreigners, is that many Kuwaiti homes prefer Sri Lankan housemaids because they are easy to work with -- once they have established themselves – and are friendly and hard working. In this context, some Kuwaitis are willing to pay a premium for a good housemaid from Sri Lanka even though they possess lesser skills than Filipino workers.

In Kuwait, the SLMWA and the Association for Licensed Foreign Employment Agents of Sri Lanka (ALFEA) came together and agreed – in a commendable move – that they are much at fault as anyone else in problems faced by housemaids. “If not for the housemaids or other professions, we won’t have an industry. We’ll be without jobs or a business ourselves,” said ALFEA President Suraj Dandeniya.

Some 200 agents from both associations who gathered in Kuwait for the historic meeting, through the MoU, acknowledged the problems and pledged to work towards the welfare and protection of housemaids in the second largest employing country in the Middle East, for Sri Lankans. Most of us in the media rely on second-hand reports from returning housemaids or officials about the crisis facing our workers because of the inability to see for ourselves the ‘real’ situation in those countries. Often we are told about the harassment, rape, abuse, non payment of wages, etc.

Rarely we are told that a situation has been created because a worker was homesick and wanted to return home, yearned for an infant that had been left behind or was too sick to work. However during a research project that I undertook in 2004 and 2006 for an NGO looking after the welfare of workers, housemaids themselves told me how women virtually abandoned their Sri Lankan families, lived with other partners (Indians, Bangladeshis or Pakistanis) and had children from these new alliances.

In Jordan, I was told by two nuns working for Caritas there who visited homes of employers how new workers were coerced by other ‘veteran’ Sri Lankans to leave their first employer and work outside as free-lancers, leaving their passport and other travel documents with the first employer. They then join the ranks of illegal workers and fall into trouble. The nuns pleaded with me, “Please bring a law in Sri Lanka where women with young infants are not allowed to go abroad.” They said many women with young children were homesick, depressed and regretted leaving their children behind.

While I was unable to speak to Sri Lankan housemaids during my recent Kuwait visit which was sponsored by the two associations, former housemaids who carry the designation of ‘Secretary” but actually run job agencies in Kuwait – there are many of them – spoke of the numerous cases where workers leave their first employer before contracts are over and team up with other men including Sri Lankans. “We have always warned them against leaving their first employer because they become illegal workers. But they don’t listen,” one agent said.

One think is clear: The job agent is not entirely to blame for the crisis facing housemaids. Of course the agents are at fault for wage issues when the contracted wage is not paid or for sending a housemaid to an employer who has been accused of harassment and other abuse in the past. On the flipside, housemaids must take responsibility as they are not forced into employment and decide to go overseas as an independent choice.

Furthermore the lack of information about the country, its people, language, work conditions and type of work plus the fact that this category of Sri Lankans have never stepped out of their village to see the ‘rest of the world’ or the ‘rest of Sri Lanka’ for that matter makes them ill-equipped, ill-prepared and unskilled to aspire to be a foreign housemaid – whatever the economic (desperate to earn for the family) provocation might be. Rarely does a well-prepared and semi-skilled housemaid face any difficulty in the workplace. There are thousands of housemaids who have done well overseas and worked for period of 10-20 years on renewed or new contracts. If they have a problem they won’t be going back and back many times over, as clearly seen in many parts of the Middle East.

The solution lies in a broader view of the issues facing migrant workers, bringing together all stakeholders – the government, workers, agents, welfare associations and families of workers – and preparing a roadmap for the next 30-50 years on how we need to move forward in this sector and most importantly, make sure housemaids are better skilled and modeled into an honourable and noble profession like any other skill rather than as a means of foreign exchange for the country and an avenue to relieve our employment problems, as it is now. Housewives and stay-at-home mothers perform an important role in society, a role that should be measured in economic terms and what it would cost the household budget if this role is to be outsourced. Similarly, housemaids and domestics, even in Sri Lankan homes here, perform an important role in the economy of a country and must be seen as an integral part of a country’s workforce.

(The writer is Consultant Editor-Business at The Sunday Times and has spent years writing and researching on issues confronting Sri Lankan migrant workers. He believes there should be a rational and pragmatic approach to the problems rather than the blame-game syndrome which is never going to resolve the problems of the workers. The fact that job agents are acknowledging weaknesses in the system, he says, is a step forward in turning Sri Lankan housemaids into a profession that commands respect from society. The biggest challenge however is in bringing together agents and civil society groups looking after the interests of workers and working towards a common goal, a common vision.)

Housemaids are human beings – Kuwaiti agents

Views of Zain Milhan, SLMWA President during an interview in Kuwait:“Our objective in the MoU is to minimize the problems faced by housemaids. We have solved many issues and I can say with some authority that there are lesser problems faced by housemaids in Kuwait now than 10 years ago.

We have also stepped in to solve the problems of housemaids who come through ‘illegal’ agents, although we are not responsible for their welfare. No one speaks on their behalf but we help when they have a problem.

We want to educate housemaids on common problems. They are human beings. We want to train our agents to handle humans. For example we want to make sure the facilities available in homes of sponsors, welfare of workers, their responsibilities, wages, the safety of the worker. That’s the objective of this association.

The problem now is proper selection of workers. We don’t see workers or have a say until they arrive here as selections are done by Sri Lankan agents. Many workers are old; some are overweight and cannot even walk.

The work involved – cook, iron, wash, wash cars – is a lot of hard work. We need a proper selection from Sri Lanka. Most of the problems would be reduced if the selection is proper and those who come here are adequately skilled and fit.

We are preparing a system of blacklisting a bad sponsor. We should suspend bad employers and ensure no Sri Lanka woman is sent to that home to work.

There is a big demand for domestics but short supply from the Sri Lankan end. We also want to encourage Sri Lanka to send more workers in male categories. There are hundreds of jobs for male workers from labour, mechanics, restaurant to doctors.”














“Welcome’ home for new migrants

The Sri Lankan embassy is working out a plan to set up a transition lodge in Kuwait where new migrants from Sri Lanka will be allowed to rest for a 24-hour period before starting work in the home of the sponsor.

‘These girls come straight from their village to Kuwait. They are tired, lost in an alien country and but have to go to work immediately,” said Sri Lankan ambassador in Kuwait S.A.C.M. Zuhyle.

The workers will be picked by embassy staff from the airport, brought to the proposed centre (which will be outside the embassy), given a good meal, refresh and rest and provided a briefing. The sponsor/agent/employer will be handed over the worker by the embassy at this centre unlike now where the workers are met at the airport by the employer or agent. This will enable the embassy to have a record of the arrival of the worker and where she goes to.”

Zuhyle said the Kuwait government rejected the proposal to set up such a centre earlier but is considering an appeal from the Sri Lankan embassy.


Agents acknowledge problems of housemaids in MoU

The following is the full text of the MoU signed between the Sri Lanka Manpower Welfare Association of Kuwait and the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies in Sri Lanka “agreeing to co-operate and coordinate in a harmonious manner to foster goodwill, promote and to safeguard the welfare of the recruiting pagencies in Kuwait and Sri Lanka”:

  • Both parties agree that the two Associations will work only among the members of the two Associations.
  • The two Associations will have a unified contract that would be signed by both the agents and authenticated by the Associations.
  • Both Associations will have a joint committee and any problems arising from the unified contract will be settled by the joint committee.

Unified contract

A. The unified contact is based according to the laws of domestic workers rules and regulations in Kuwait and the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau Act Number 21 of 1985.

B. All job orders will be authenticated by the Kuwait Association before the Kuwait agent submits the job order to the Kuwait Embassy.

C. The mode of payment will be very clearly stated. It will include whether the money would be paid in advance or the number of days credit granted for each party.

D. Deportation procedures when refusing to work is agreed. If refusing to work is agreed the amount of money that will be charged per deportation and the method of payment by the Sri Lankan agent will be listed.

E. The responsibility for finger print deportation and who will be responsible for runaway cases, will be laid down.

F. Both Associations agreed that if migrant workers face any problems, the two Associations will device a method to look after the safety and welfare of the migrant workers. The Associations have identified at present the following problems:

1. Homesick
2. Claiming to be sick
3. Sexual harassment
4. Lack of proper facilities
5. Assault
6. Non-payment of wages
7. Absconding cases
8. Non Kuwaiti nationals recruiting housemaids through Kuwaiti offices for other countries.

G. The Sri Lankan agent must make sure that the facts in the bio data are true and correct.

H. The Sri Lanka recruiting office must see the housemaid in his office before the bio data is sent to Kuwait and must assure that she is not handicapped or unstable.

I. The two agents will agree on a duration of recruitment after the visa is stamped by the Kuwait embassy in Sri Lanka

J. The two Associations will try to resolve embassy matters to the best of their ability.

K. The job order will contain the following documents:

1. Power of Attorney
2. Demand letter

L. Agreement between the foreign agency and the local agency which will be a unified contract that will include the following -- the Kuwaiti agent will try to protect the migrant worker to the best of his or her ability; any problems arising out of the above clauses would be referred to the joint committee, and both association agree that if migrant workers face any problems, the two associations will device a method to look after the safety and welfare of the migrant workers.


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