It was a windy Friday morning and I was already late for my column. Then, just as Kussi Amma Sera brought the tea, there were shouts of “Akka, Akka …” from the gate. Serapina was calling KAS, probably for their usual tete-a-tete which is normally on a Thursday morning. “Aie?” Kussi Amma Sera asked, running [...]

Business Times

Equality for female migrant workers


It was a windy Friday morning and I was already late for my column. Then, just as Kussi Amma Sera brought the tea, there were shouts of “Akka, Akka …” from the gate.

Serapina was calling KAS, probably for their usual tete-a-tete which is normally on a Thursday morning. “Aie?” Kussi Amma Sera asked, running up to the gate.

“Eehe enda Bariwuna… Apey game lamayekge meda peradiga gaetaluvak nisa (I couldn’t come yesterday since a woman from my village had a problem in West Asia),” said Serapina, KAS’s buddy-buddy.

The conversation then drifted to a pitch that I couldn’t hear what they were saying from my office window. I was still contemplating on what to write this week, when the phone rang.

It was Arthika, my nonsensical economist friend who often doesn’t know whether he is “coming or going”, in what he believes is his “perfect” discourse (to others it’s meaningless drivel) on the economy.

“Machan, I was wondering whether you know anything about the Family Background Report (FBR) for female migrant workers,” he asked.

Instantly I was interested, since it was on Thursday that I was privy to a discussion in Colombo by trade unions, working on migrant worker rights, to discuss issues arising out of the FBR.

“Yep, the FBR seems to be a problem and has not achieved what it intended to do – that is, minimise the social costs of women going abroad to work as domestic workers,” I said in response.

Apparently Arthika was writing a paper on the topic and wanted more information. We then chatted, unusually a productive conversation, on the FBR and the issues that have arisen over the years since it was introduced in 2013 as a means of tackling the social cost of migration and protecting children left behind by mothers.

Rather than offer adequate protection and care for children whose mothers work as domestics in households in West Asia, the FBR introduced in 2013 has kicked up a lot a controversy including claims of bribery and corruption.

Under the FBR, every woman with children must get FBR approval. Every woman going abroad has to convince authorities through a complex process that their children are adequately taken care of during their absence. A rejected FBR by a committee comprising the Divisional Secretary and officials in the town of the would-be migrant worker, means she would be barred from leaving.

Every year, more than 200,000 Sri Lankans fly overseas mostly for skilled and unskilled jobs. According to official statistics, last year some 73,000 or 35 per cent out of 212,162 Sri Lankan migrant workers were women.

Officially, the data over the years since the FBR was enforced would imply the number of women migrating every year for work is dropping from a high of over 50 per cent earlier and that the system is working. This is in the context that a woman’s application to seek work abroad is rejected since she is unable to offer a plausible solution as to how her children (all above five years) are taken care of during her absence by a guardian (either a spouse, grandparents or a reliable relative).

But here lies the problem. In desperation to earn some money for the family, many women are circumventing the system through a web of corruption and trafficking and still going abroad. Often they fall into trouble.

Many local and international organisations including the ILO have pointed out that the FBR is ineffective and rather than solve problems, has created newer issues.

“Reconsider the continued imposition of the FBR on prospective female migrant workers since the FBR should not be considered a tool to stop women from migrating for employment. Instead, consider the further development of the Family Care Plan or one of the alternatives proposed or a version that is developed through consultation with the relevant officials and the key family members involved,” said a recent study by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) commissioned by the ILO’s Colombo office.

At Thursday’s discussion in Colombo organised by trade unions and migrant worker-interest groups, many issues were raised pertaining to the effectiveness of the FBR.

The FBR came in the wake of the tragic circumstances leading to the execution of underage Sri Lankan female domestic worker Rizana Nafeek in 2013, in Saudi Arabia.

The woman as the primary caregiver in the family was reinforced by a Supreme Court decision dismissing a petition by a woman challenging the FBR. The court took the view that the woman is the pivot of the family and must ensure the proper care of children while abroad. The petitioner had challenged the Government on the grounds that her spouse, at that time separated from her, had refused to approve her FBR application and that it was a violation of her fundamental right to travel abroad for work.

During the discussion, many examples of how women, in desperation circumvent the system, were revealed. In one case, a woman had threatened to commit suicide if her FBR was not approved, compelling the FBR committee to approve it. In another instance, a local official took a bribe (happening all the time) to give his sanction, while in a third case, a women sought a corrupt official from another village to get the FBR approved.

It was revealed that FBR or not, women were going abroad legally and illegally as they had no other option and they were more inclined to fend for their family back home than the husband working abroad.

Furthermore, the data on less than 40 per cent women going abroad do not account for a sizable number going abroad through other means, often armed with a visit visa to Dubai and then securing work in an adjoining country. They are often trapped in difficult work conditions, trafficked and find it difficult to return or return after a traumatic experience.

The CEPA-ILO study reveals that the FBR has failed to ensure that children are protected and that the system is unfair since it focuses only on the lower rungs of semi-skilled women while women at the professional and skilled levels remain outside the purview of this monitoring mechanism.

It has also proven to be counter-productive at all levels, perpetuating a vicious cycle of corruption, irregular migration and unsafe working conditions for the women, rather than ensuring that children are protected and that women engage in safe migration for work, the report said.

One of the points raised at Thursday’s discussion was that culturally women are known to be the ones who take care of the children while the man is at work.

However, more and more women are now working in an environment where joint incomes are necessary to keep the home fires burning due to the rising cost of living and seeking a higher quality of life.

In urban societies and Colombo-centric surroundings, men are increasingly taking a greater responsibility in looking after the children, in a few instances, also being a stay-at-home dad while the wife is at work. These instances, though maybe rare, are still an example of a pattern in urban Colombo where roles of care-giving are gradually being shared by the husband and wife.

The problem lies in the village where the traditional role of the woman is a stay-at-home-mother while the husband is at work. As if reading my thoughts, Kussi Amma Sera walks into my office room while I am pondering on this issue, and, picking the empty tea cup, says “Mahattaya, apitath aiethiyak thiyenne oney (women should also have rights like men)”.

“Eka hari (that’s correct),” I nod in agreement, telling her that maybe the system of education from the lower grades should inculcate a shared responsibility in a household that treats a man and woman as equal beings without any discrimination.

The section on ‘right to equality’ under fundamental rights in the Sri Lanka Constitution provides for all persons (male or female) being equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law.

If that is the case and in this modern age, women have a right to ensure their spouses also play the role of protector and provider to their children, as much as they (women) do. These are changes that should come naturally just as Sri Lanka moves up the ladder of a modern, democratic nation with increasingly developing status and higher per capita income.

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