Business Times

Working in the Middle East? It’s not worth it!

“I regret sending her and also (it’s a lesson) for all the people who go to work overseas. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth at all.” These are the words of Fathima Razeena, mother of Sri Lankan domestic Rizana Nafeek whose death sentence for the May 2005 ‘killing’ of an infant in her care, was affirmed by a Saudi court this week.

Nafeek, whose case drew international scrutiny and concern over Saudi laws, went to the Arab state in May 2005 and the baby of the employing couple died just two weeks in her care. She was just 17 years and a minor but a recruitment agency in Sri Lanka had altered her passport listing the age as 23 years.
The young girl has languished in jail for five years after human rights groups and the Sri Lankan Government appealed against the conviction by a lower court. Now the appeal court has upheld the sentence amidst reports that this could be part of a tit-for-tat between the two countries (Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia).

In the past few weeks, both governments have been grappling over two issues: the case of L.T. Ariyawathi whose employer allegedly hammered several nails and wires into her body and a dispute over minimum rates for employing domestics in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Government hasn’t commented on both issues, studiously keeping away though unofficially the authorities there are in turn accusing Ariyawathi of self-inflicting the injuries, a charge strongly denied by Sri Lankan doctors who examined the domestic worker. The wage issue is still to be resolved and may have been aggravated by Ariyawathi’s allegations. On top of that comes the affirmation of the death penalty on Rizana.

Her mother, who says Rizana was determined to go abroad to help supplement the family income and help her brother and sister in their studies, has said that no government agency has contacted her about the latest developments. On Tuesday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appealed to the Saudi King urging that Rizana be pardoned.

Her mother says she (mother) just can’t sleep at night. “How is she, what is she going through, none to take care of her, she is suffering there alone, we can’t even help her or talk to her,” she told this newspaper. “Why can’t the Saudi people have mercy on her. Allah is the most merciful and the Prophet (Mohamed) didn’t even harm his worst enemy. Saudi Arabia being a Muslim country I hope will free my daughter,” she said.

Asked what advice she could give to other poor parents who want to send their children abroad to work as domestics, Fathima Razeena said (in her own words): “ I know that you (other parents) send your children not expecting this (plight of Rizana) to happen. But you have to think about the worst things that can happen when you send them. Think whether you must really go through what I am going through.”
Close to a million Sri Lankans work in the Middle East, mostly women as domestic workers and undergo many hardships.

As repeatedly reported (ad nauseum) in the past by this newspaper and other media, these women are unskilled; unable to adjust to a foreign environment (when many of them have not even stepped out of their village and visited urban cities like Colombo); they don’t know a word of English apart from not knowing the language of the country of work; they are alien to sophisticated household equipment and utensils, etc, etc.

Yet thousands go and are desperate to work overseas despite persistent tales of woe from returning domestics workers who have had problems in their workplace including sexual harassment. On the flip side, there are however thousands of workers who have had fewer problems and are content in the workplace and the money they make to feed their families back home. According to the authorities, complaints received from Sri Lankan workers are around 10 % or less as per total number of workers overseas and shouldn’t reflect on the large numbers who are happy in their workplace.

There is also a category of workers, mostly domestic workers, who don’t complain of problems in the workplace for reasons best known to them. Nothing will stop Sri Lankans working abroad particularly as domestics (where most of the problems lie). Given the poverty situation in villages and the high cost of living, thousands of young and middle-aged women will continue to go despite horror stores and harrowing tales reported in the media or known to others.

And yes … the Government also desperately needs this foreign exchange which according to current figures could reach an all-time high in 2010. The question then that begs to be asked – not for the first time either – is: Are Sri Lankan workers adequately protected overseas and/or are they aware of their rights? Is the Government doing its utmost to ensure the protection of Sri Lankan workers overseas?

Rizana’s plight is a tragic one and her life now lies in the hands of the Saudi authorities. There are scores of others who have similar or near escapades with the law in the Middle East. A National Policy on Foreign Employment was announced by the Government last year. Maybe it’s time to re-visit this policy and look at ways of ensuring that situations like Rizana’s don’t happen again.

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