Double deaths point to bigger tragedy

Questions of child trafficking, especially from poverty-stricken estate families and child labour come to the fore following the discovery of the bodies of two under-aged domestic aides Maduraveeran Jeevarani and Lethchuman Sumathi in Colombo 7 last week
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Was it suicide? Was it murder? While mystery still clouds the teenage double-deaths in Colombo 7 and an exhumation of the bodies and a fresh report from a Judicial Medical Officer were ordered, parallel probes are on by two government agencies to ascertain whether the serious offences of trafficking and child labour were part of the tragedy.

Both the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) and the Department of Labour have launched investigations, following the discovery of the bodies of two girls aged 13 and 14 years in a shallow canal off Bauddhaloka Mawatha on August 15. Maduraveeran Jeevarani and Lethchuman Sumathi, had reportedly been brought to Colombo from the Laxapana estate in Maskeliya by a job broker for domestic work in the homes of L.M. Kowsiq and W.M. Fazaly in Colombo in April this year.

The shallow canal at Bauddhaloka Mawathe where the two bodies were found. The slippers of the two domestic aides are in the foreground

The biggest problem is posed by the job brokers, said a child rights activist, pointing out that clearly, at the time of employment, Sumathi was just 14 years old while even at the time of employment and also death, Jeevarani was a minor. “These are crimes against children,” the activist stressed.

The modus operandi of the job agents is to have a network of sub-agents who have their tentacles in the remotest villages and estates. The sub-agents go into the homes of the poverty-stricken and illiterate and develop close bonds with them. These villagers and estate workers trust these persons, the activist explained, adding that they also promise a better future for the children.

Society is indifferent to this problem and not at all vocal, the activist added. Under the Children, Young Persons’ and Women’s Employment Ordinance, no child under the age of 14 can be used in domestic labour or for any other work. Those between the ages of 14 and 16 years and those in the age group 16 to 18 years may be employed for domestic work that does not include improper activity and hazardous work. Another important law which reinforces such rules and regulations against the employment of children is the Education Ordinance under which it is mandatory for a child to go to school until he/she is 14 years old.

Another rights activist pointed out that although every sphere of employment was governed by the Wages Board which stipulated not only the age of employment but also the type of work, the number of hours a person should work and the wages that should be paid, there are no guidelines with regard to domestic work.

Domestic aides who are still derogatorily called servants have to work all the time and get paid a measly wage. Whether they are fed well or starved would depend on the master or the mistress, the activist said, adding, “They have no protection.” These are the wider issues the NCPA, which has the authority to call for reports and also present any additional information to court, is hoping to address through the tragic case of Jeevarani, assured NCPA Chairman Jagath Wellawatte.

The NCPA, which can initiate inquiries on its own if the matter is within its mandate, is not only probing whether a child has been in domestic work but also whether there was trafficking, he said, and several statements have already been recorded. These teenagers’ parents are impoverished and not educated. They do not understand the intricacies of trafficking or child labour. They would only be under the impression that a job in a town would give their children a better deal.

Mr. Wellawatte added that the questions that will be probed are: Has there been a sale of a child? Have the parents been cheated with promises of a better future or promises that the children will be sent to school? How many children have they sent for such employment?…all issues relating to trafficking.
This would also be the point from which preventive action will be launched, he said, lamenting that though child labour is common in Sri Lanka, society does not discuss it openly.

The NCPA will also base this investigation as a model so that whenever such an incident as the double-death is reported, the police will look at the wider issues as well without zeroing in only on whether it was suicide or murder. The police probe should be comprehensive, with all angles and all leads followed. Statements should be recorded from all, including the employers, he said.

The Labour Department is also in the process of collecting evidence to ascertain whether there was employment of a minor, said Commissioner-General of Labour, Upali Wijeweera. His officers were checking whether there was an unwritten, verbal agreement.With active lobbying from many groups that domestic labour should be regularized, discussions are underway on registering not only job agents but also all those locally-employed in this sector, he said, pointing out that there should be some regulation in respect of registration, service conditions and remuneration.

This would be timely in view of the next International Labour Conference being on Domestic Labour.

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