It has been said over and over again that the female workforce is the engine that drives Sri Lanka’s economy.Be it plantations (tea and rubber), garments and migrant workers – the main foreign exchange revenue earners, it’s Sri Lankan women who dominate the workforce. But are they getting a fair share of the economic pie like their male counterparts?
Not really. A damning report on the plight of Sri Lankan housemaids in the Middle East once again draws attention to the urgency in which the government must act to ensure our workers, particularly women, are adequately protected overseas.
The 131-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the international human rights campaigner, released this week in Colombo, is nothing new in the plethora of studies, research and media reports that have repeatedly in the past urged protection of our workers without success.
However, this report study stands out for one profound observation; that prospective migrant women are coerced or forced into taking contraceptives before they depart.
Local workers have told HRW researchers that job agents forced them to take long-term contraception to prevent pregnancy during employment. (See the Plus section for a detailed version of the report).
Worker support groups and job agents concede this is the first time the issue of ‘coerced or forced’ contraception has come into public focus and it’s interesting to see how the government would react or whether it would ‘shoo-shoo’ the report as balderdash by an international NGO, the way the government normally reacts to rights accusations from by international groups.
The allegations are however too serious to be taken lightly. One worker for example is quoted as saying, “I didn’t have a choice. I was told if I went without the injection and if I get pregnant, then I would have to pay my own way and the agent wouldn’t be responsible. But if I went with the injection and anything happened then the agent would be responsible.” The report is well documented and requires a response from the government at a time when a Parliamentary Select Committee has been appointed on migrant worker issues and has called for public representations.
There is a point of concern though on the representation of the committee. Some industry officials are questioning the propriety of Foreign Employment Minister Keheliya Rambukwella serving on it as he performs the dual role of minister in charge of the subject as well as having an employment agency under his care.
The state-owned Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Agency comes under the ministry and technically it would be a conflict of interest for the minister to serve on this committee when he himself is involved in promoting foreign employment. The committee is seen as an independent body outside the influence of job agents and NGOs involved in this field and thus should be able to present a rational set of policies and recommendations aimed at protecting the worker.
Sri Lanka is caught up in a catch-22 situation in relation to female migrant workers. On one hand, the absence from their homes has led to many social consequences like lack of parental guidance for their children, husbands going astray and many other issues. Then, on the other hand, they need the money and the independence to make decisions, which is their right. No one can take that away from them although the debate continues as to whether women should be allowed or not to work as domestics in the Middle East in the light of the problems they face.
Most of the women are forced to work overseas for economic reasons or compelled to help supplement the family income like in the case of the 17-year old Rizana Nafeek whose death sentence – on accusations of causing the death of a Saudi infant – has been delayed following an appeal against the judgment.
There are mixed views on whether the under-aged worker will escape the gallows. The Sri Lankan government is relatively quiet over the progress of the case probably fearing that another bout of media reportage could jeopardize her chances of freedom.
Nevertheless, for the umpteen times the plight of the Sri Lankan housemaid in the Middle East has come into focus again. This time let’s hope it’s not in vain.