About two or three times a year in Parliament, ministers praise the efforts of Sri Lanka’s near 1.5 million overseas migrant workers for earning billions of petro dollars to uplift the local economy.However whenever a worker falls into trouble overseas, these voices are silent and politicians – except for a few like UNP Parliamentarian Ranjan [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Jobs for rural women


About two or three times a year in Parliament, ministers praise the efforts of Sri Lanka’s near 1.5 million overseas migrant workers for earning billions of petro dollars to uplift the local economy.However whenever a worker falls into trouble overseas, these voices are silent and politicians – except for a few like UNP Parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake – are pre-occupied by other mundane matters. A female Sri Lankan domestic worker has been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for adultery and a diplomatic effort is underway to secure her release amidst unfortunate comments on the issue from the country’s main envoy there. However more focus and attention is on issues like the controversial withdrawal of duty free car permits for doctors (a decision which has been reversed), pension issues for a former President and civil servants, among other budget proposals.

Adding to the debate on migrant workers is a Supreme Court petition filed by Ms. Priyadharshani Ariyarathna challenging a Ministry of Foreign Employment circular where a “Family Background Report (FBR) is a requirement for all females, irrespective of their job category and sector of employment (domestic or non-domestic or even professionals)” seeking employment in West Asia as domestic workers.The FBR is compulsory for all women who seek employment abroad who they have children less than five years. The petitioner is seeking a ruling that the circular is discriminatory since the FBR is not applicable to males “at all and there is no responsibility for men to look after or give proper care for the children under five years where love and care of the BOTH parents are very much necessary”, the petition states, adding that the equal rights of women are being violated by the FBR.

As per the crisis in Saudi Arabia, earlier this week a married Sri Lankan woman was sentenced to death by stoning in Saudi Arabia after admitting to adultery while the man she had a sexual relationship received a punishment of 100 lashes.The 45-year-old Sri Lankan woman whose name has been withheld and who had worked as a maid in Riyadh since 2013, and her partner, also a Sri Lankan, were both convicted of adultery in August but received different sentences.This is the second death sentence be imposed on a Sri Lanka in Saudi Arabia in recent times. In 2013, Rizana Nafeek – despite an international outcry – was beheaded for the murder of a four-month-old infant in her care. Her defenders say the incident was accidental and that she was young, went to Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker but ended up working as child carer. The latest punishment imposed on a Sri Lankan domestic worker brings to the fore once again the many issues women face working in Arab states where the existence of archaic laws pose a real challenge.

Unfortunately while the Government and interest groups in Sri Lanka are campaigning for a pardon for the Sri Lankan woman on sympathetic grounds (a strategy that didn’t work in the case of Rizana Nafeek), Sri Lanka’s new ambassador in Saudi Arabia, Azmi Thassim (just a few weeks in the job) has made statements that could make negotiations more complex.Last week Mr. Thassim was quoted in the Sunday Times (similar comments were made to the Saudi-based Arab News) as saying that people who go to Saudi Arabia should get to know the laws of the country beforehand to avoid such incidents.“If our people are not happy with these laws they must avoid going to the country,” he was quoted as saying. What the ambassador has said maybe correct but to make such a statement while a Sri Lankan is facing death is not only undiplomatic but also insensitive. Being brutally honest at this stage is not the best approach particularly since efforts are on to secure a pardon or a lesser sentence not amounting to death.

The reality is that Sri Lanka’s economy is oiled on the hard work of women and men working overseas, a fact that Sri Lankan leaders have stressed over and over again in parliament with foreign remittances being the higher earner.Governments – until recently – have actively engaged in promoting Sri Lankan women going abroad on employment as domestic workers. No proper steps were taken to advise women (adequately and sufficiently, not mild efforts) on the stringent laws in those countries covering a range of issues apart from harassment and abuse, and discourage them from going abroad. Like it or not, the government benefited from this outflow of migrant workers and it was only in recent years that authorities woke up to the fact that women are increasingly facing issues abroad, which officials in past brushed aside saying less than 10 per cent of the women working abroad had problems.

Today the emphasis is on skilled migration with women being discouraged from going abroad for unskilled jobs. The reality however is that a whole generation of rural women have grown up under the radar of going abroad at a permissible age in the absence of economic opportunities available locally. Export processing zones at Katunayake and elsewhere are no more an attraction for women as living costs are high and there is little or no take home pay. Harassment and abuse of FTZ workers in addition to health and safety issues are growing problems. The military, as a source of employment, has also dried up after the war. So rural women have few options other than working in the low, paid agriculture sector.
The economy was built on petro dollars and created a culture where many women, struggling to raise a family while the spouse has a low wage job in the agriculture or industrial sector, saw West Asia as the light at the end of the tunnel (of problems). Trying to reverse that trend overnight is not going to work unless women are given an alternate economic option that would provide them a decent job with a decent wage. At the moment there is no such effort by the authorities.

Sri Lankan women are not ignorant of the dangers overseas but with fewer options to keep them at home in a productive way, are compelled to earn money abroad for the sake of the families. Sri Lanka diplomats need to understand these ramifications and economic connections and in particular the fact that the government has been the promoter of Sri Lankans seeking foreign employment.Ironically Saudi Arabia, despite its harsh laws, was recently elected to chair a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council, a move that has been criticized by human rights groups.“It is scandalous that the UN chose a country that has beheaded more people this year than ISIS to be head of a key human rights panel,” UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer, was quoted as saying in one report, adding: “Petro-dollars and politics have trumped human rights.”Thus while the Government is discouraging Sri Lankan women going abroad for unskilled jobs, it must at the same time provide employment opportunities for rural women.

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