Are stiff barriers breaking down in West Asia, the land of El Dorado for many men and women from Sri Lankan rural communities? Most civil society activists engaged in working for the rights of migrant workers are likely to disagree. However, there seem to be positive moves in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other [...]

Business Times

Positive changes for domestic workers


Are stiff barriers breaking down in West Asia, the land of El Dorado for many men and women from Sri Lankan rural communities? Most civil society activists engaged in working for the rights of migrant workers are likely to disagree.

However, there seem to be positive moves in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other West Asian nations towards providing a more decent and safer work environment for migrant workers, especially women engaged in domestic work. Two recent developments stand out in this process: A new law in the UAE (made up of seven emirates including Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah) stipulates working conditions for domestic workers including a regular weekly day off, 30 days of paid annual leave and the right to retain personal documents (passports), the last named being a progressive step forward against the ages-old practice of an employer retaining the passport of a worker as a precaution against running away, among other matters. The second progressive development, most likely to positively impact on the rights of domestic workers, is that Saudi Arabia – which has a sizable number of Sri Lankan domestic workers — recently announced that Saudi women would be allowed to drive. While the move will be legally effective in June 2018, it is also expected to result in greater women’s participation in the workplace and the economy.

Nearly half of the 1 million+ Sri Lankan workers in West Asia are women employed as domestic workers. Many of these women face problems in the households they work in, often having to suffer abuse, assault, sexual harassment and non-payment of wages. While many amongst them face difficulties trapped in a web of anger, despair and helplessness, they ‘escape’ from their sponsors only to meet a worse fate. Many end up either in detention camps, deportation or welfare centres run by the state for immigration-connected violations like loss of passports, expiration of the visa, or running away from a sponsor who refuses to release the exit permit or passport for multiple reasons.

As if reflecting my thoughts on migrant workers while typing this piece on a laptop, I could hear Kussi Amma Sera asking for my views, probably for the first time. The fact remains that if you don’t respond to any of her queries, there is hell to pay in the house. The food lacks variety and spice and leaves and dirt gather in the front-yard.

“One of the girls in the village in Kurunegala has problems abroad. Whom should her family contact here?” she asked in Sinhala. I explained about the process and reaching out to the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment which handles issues of this kind. However, it got me thinking as to whether the information flow on awareness about migrant workers and whom to contact in an emergency, particularly in Kurunegala where the largest number of domestic workers to West Asia comes from, is up-to-date and within easy reach of the families of women abroad.

While local authorities claim that the public is aware of whom to contact in an emergency, the reality is that much of the awareness is brought to the village through civil society organisations even to the extent of negotiating the release of a person in detention abroad. While a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the terrible 2013 tragedy of under-age Sri Lankan domestic worker Rizana Nafeek, who was executed for smothering an infant in her care in Saudi Arabia, that case would never have reached the public domain the way it eventually did if not for civil society groups stepping in. Though it was too late, bitter lessons were learnt and employment agents are more cautious in sending under-age girls, though trafficking through Dubai continues with the Sri Lankan Government even detecting one case recently.

The state policy on the recruitment of women as domestic workers overseas is one of ‘restriction’. The policy is aimed at restricting the number of women going abroad as domestic workers, more out of concern over the issues they face in foreign lands. It is mostly unskilled or semi-skilled women who face problems in the workplace (mainly homes) where often issues or disagreements are one-sided, with employers getting their way even if workers are abused or harassed. Another restrictive provision is the mandatory Family Background Report (FBR) for women seeking overseas migrant employment in the domestic sector.

While this report is to ensure the care and protection of children of female domestic workers, a recent UN report saw this as an arbitrary measure which denied the right of many Sri Lankan women to migrate as domestic workers. “While there is overwhelming acceptance of this circular being ‘good’ and ‘safeguarding children and the family’, there is also discussion on the discriminatory nature of the circular that goes against the Constitutional commitments to gender equality and right to employment enjoyed by all women and men in Sri Lanka,” the report noted.

Policies such as this should be crafted without discrimination or gender bias and ensure shared responsibilities, with the man in the house being equally responsible for the upkeep, maintenance and protection of children in a household. Unfortunately, a 2013 fundamental rights plea – seeking ‘leave to proceed’ — filed by a courageous woman challenging the Government on her fundamental right to travel and against such movement being barred by her husband or any other official, was rejected by the Supreme Court. The court took the view that the rule was not gender discriminatory nor violated an individual’s human rights and was based on the protection of women and children as many women have faced problems overseas. The ruling also referred to the culture and tradition in Sri Lanka where the woman in the family is a strong binding force.

While guidelines and policies in recent times are crafted more in line with deterring women from seeking employment abroad as domestic workers, which the Government often says are for the protection of children and ensuring a happy home rather than a broken one, new policies should ensure village communities will prepare for a future where mothers and young women see greater opportunities at home. Another reality is that most women seek jobs abroad as a means of escapism from abuse at home or relief from a dreary and heavily-burdened life as a homemaker.

As society increasingly moves towards an era of shared responsibilities in the home, local authorities – rather than enforcing ban-like conditions on women going abroad – must help upgrade the skills of migrants to make them employable as skilled ‘house-keepers’ or ‘care-givers’, which is a growing need in the west and countries where the ageing population is rapidly rising.

However, all these issues pale into insignificance given new realities in West Asia where remittances from migrant workers have been dropping for the second year in succession owing to political instability, an economic slowdown and falling oil revenues, according to a report in the Business Times this week. This could also force the authorities to pay less attention to the remittances’ economy and focus on growing foreign exchange earners like tourism which is targeting 5 million arrivals in 2025 and heading fast towards being the country’s largest foreign-exchange earner. But missing in the equation, very often when discussing the sector that brings in the largest foreign exchange, is that tourism like garments (currently the second highest forex earner after remittances),has a sizable component of foreign exchange input in both garments and tourism , while remittances is a 100 per cent saving. The same yardstick would apply to tea exports in which the country gets a near 100 per cent benefit in foreign exchange, but has been upstaged by garments.

So while challenges continue for Sri Lanka’s female migrant workers to be able to work in a trouble-free environment, the new measures in the UAE aimed at providing a more decent work environment and women given greater responsibilities in Saudi Arabia are steps in the right direction towards enhancing the protection of Sri Lankan women working in West Asia.

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