Slaves of the modern age: Migrant workers bought and sold for a song

Lankans stranded in Jeddah
By Leon Berenger

Thousands of Sri Lankans are trapped in a modern day ‘slave trading post’ in the Saudi city of Jeddah, with no way of returning home for lack of proper travel or work documents and finances, prompting the authorities to rush a senior delegation to assess the ground situation in this regard.

President of the Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) W.M.P. Aponso told the Sunday Times the situation was worsening by the day as more and more Lankans both male and female were flocking to this so-called trading post in search of employment, sometimes offering their services in return for a meal.

Women form the majority of the stranded workers (Pix courtesy Ranjan Ramanayake’s office).
Migrant workers share a meal
Thousands of Lankan migrant workers sans travel and work documents or finances living under the Khandar Bridge in Jeddah

“This situation has remained for a considerable period of time, and the Saudi authorities are apparently turning a blind eye since repatriation of such large numbers would require a lot of money among other issues.

They will not get involved and it is up to the authorities in Colombo to take serious action instead of letting the situation worsen even further”, Mr. Aponso said. The Sri Lankans are not alone. They are joined by thousands from other nations of South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, he added.

Mr. Aponso explained the bulk of the Lankans had travelled to the oil-rich kingdom on short-term visas and later over-stayed with the intention of securing employment. There are also those who had entered Saudi Arabia on religious pilgrimages and later stayed behind he said.

S. Ruhunge, Additional General Manager (AGM) of the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (SLFEB) said the recruiting agencies must take the blame for the current situation in Jeddah and even in other West Asian capitals.

“Recruitment is carried out without proper screening of employers, such as their financial status, etc and this leads to complications such as the non-payment of wages leading to problems. The agents are merely interested in collecting the fees from the workers”, Mr. Ruhunge explained.

In the case of Jeddah, the Deputy Minister for Foreign Employment, Mr. Hussein Bhaila along with officials from the SLFEB left for Riyadh on Monday this week to get a first hand account of the real situation and to try to help out with the co-operation of the local authorities, Mr. Ruhunuge added.

He further said that a section of the Sri Lankans had even refused an offer to be accommodated at the embassy because repatriation takes a longer time owing to certain bureaucratic delays which are unavoidable.

“Therefore they opt to sleep it out rough hoping they will be taken away by the local authorities and later repatriated to Colombo in a shorter period of time. The situation is very complicated”, Mr. Ruhunuge conceded.

Actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake who has remained on a campaign to protect the rights of the migrant workers, --mainly women-- blamed both the state and the recruiting agencies for the current state of affairs in Jeddah.

“The two parties are liars. While the agencies are more interested in the fees they collect, the Bureau has a zero mechanism to monitor the recruiting system and gives minimum priority to the welfare of the migrant workers.

Even in the case at Jeddah they had chased away the women who had sought refuge, including six pregnant mothers”, Mr. Ramanayake who is Leader of the Opposition in the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council added.

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