Financial Times

Domestic workers in local households push for rights

By Quintus Perera

The denial of rights and privileges of domestic workers and a lack of implementation of legislations was highlighted by C. J. Weliamuna, Attorney-at-law and Human Rights Activist who made the keynote address at the commemoration meeting to coincide with the ‘World Day for Decent Work’ held last week at the Mahaweli Centre, organized by the National Workers Congress.

While D. S. Edirisinghe, Commissioner General of Labour in his address as Chief Guest conceded that the government has so far not introduced any legislation to cover domestic servants in difference to the legislation that are in place to protect other types of worker, Mr Weliamuna in fact pointed out that the law enacted in 1871 is still in force, but it is not to protect the domestic servant.

He said that this law essentially requires all domestic servants who get employment in the households to register with the police and this is with the intention of arresting them if they flee from the households where they are employed.

Even though these repressive laws were enacted long before the first and second world wars, those who are in authority did not consider safeguarding the domestic servant, may be due to the fact that such enactments would affect the services of the domestic servants.

Migrant workers.

He said that the term decent work in Sri Lanka is limited only to lip service. While Sri Lanka has started to think about the protection of domestic workers since 2007, this concept has been in existence while studies have been carried out by the Iternational Labour Organization (ILO), NGOs and trade unions to ensure social justice, equal treatment and protection to all workers, including domestic workers.

Mr Weliamuna said that activities on the rights of the workers commenced long before the ILO was established and there had been worker struggles that even changed the political standings of some countries. Whether one likes it or not workers have been a force to be reckoned with in the political arena of most of the countries.

He said that it was pertinent to discuss the implications of GSP+ as it would affect a workforce of nearly 280,000. He said that there has been a lot of discussion by employers, trade unions and the government. But, he said, unfortunately, the government is trying to make it a political issue.

Mr Weliamuna said that the entire responsibility of the workers stability in this crisis lies in the hands of the government, indicating that if these workers lose their jobs, if the GSP+ is not granted, the number that would suffer would be around 1.4 million (workers and dependants). Therefore the government must stop making this a political issue, but utilize every force to settle the matter to ensure the continuation of these workers.

He said worker struggles were heightened when workers and employers tried to settle the problems on their own separately. Later to be acceptable to all parties, the tripartite approach was mooted where workers, employees and the government to work together in solving workers problems and under these circumstances 'decent work' emerged.

He said that to reduce poverty in the country all those eligible family members should obtain employment and not only they should get employment, they should also be provided with pleasant work environment and other protection and if that is not provided there is no 'decent work'.

He said that the domestic workers in Sri Lanka not only face such problems as payment of low salaries, degrading working condition, physical and sexual abuse, but they also face deeper social implications, more complex compared to their counterparts in public and private sectors.

Anton Ludwick, Secretary General, National Workers Congress said that they have been campaigning for the cause of domestic workers for the last five years. In fact, they have prepared draft legislation in this regard and it was forwarded to the Labour Department and the ILO for necessary action.

A large number of domestic workers were gathered drawn from all parts of the country and some of them revealed their ugly experiences which they have encountered while working as domestics.

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