The case of Ariyawathie, the housemaid who fled a psychopathic Saudi Arabian employer who allegedly hammered 23 nails into her body, turns the spotlight once again on Sri Lanka’s callous disregard for the abuse of its migrant workers abroad. Ariyawathie was lucky to return home alive, and not in a coffin, as hundreds of these unfortunate workers do year in and year out. This subject comes into the spotlight only when an extreme and sensational case such as that of Ariyawathie’s gets into the news. But the ongoing story of migrant worker abuse that goes largely unreported is nothing short of a scandal.
An attempt to investigate this issue three years ago (2007) revealed that for a period of eight months from January to August, 277 Sri Lankan expatriate workers returned home in coffins. That shows a statistical average of one dead per day. It was reported on May Day this year (in the Sunday Times) that for a period of four months from January to April, the Foreign Ministry handled 150 such deaths. Again this indicates an average of one per day. So, things have not changed much in the past three years in spite of the horrendous record.
On the first occasion, although the Foreign Employment Bureau and relevant health authorities were initially forthcoming, and provided the figure (277), when more probing questions were asked they clammed up. Although it appeared that records were being maintained, details were not given as to how many of the bodies were those of women, how many of children, the cause of death, the country of origin etc. This is information that the public are entitled to know. The more secrecy that surrounds the deaths, the more cause there is for suspicion that they were not of ‘natural causes.’ According to social workers, the families of the victims who come to grief also complain of difficulties and long delays in the matter of having their relatives’ remains repatriated. The relatives who are expected to bear the costs, are too poor to do so. It is poverty that led their family members to seek overseas employment in the first place.
Of Sri Lanka’s 1.5 million migrant workers, a million are women, most of whom are employed as housemaids in West Asia. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are the biggest employers. Remittances from migrant workers represent Sri Lanka’s top foreign exchange earner. The government facilitates the exodus of these workers and provides them with training through the Foreign Employment Bureau. Ariyawathie herself was one who had reportedly undergone the requisite training, and had been registered with the Bureau.
The Central Bank draws attention to the need for “enhancing migrant remittances” and has taken measures to “identify problems faced by migrant workers in remitting money and the problems faced by banks in mobilizing remittances.” At regular intervals the Foreign Ministry announces ‘ceremonies’ at which compensation is paid out to families of migrant workers who died overseas. While these measures are well and good, none of them addresses the issue of abuse. Women employees - who are in the majority – encounter sexual abuse in addition to other forms of abuse.
As Ariyawathie’s case reveals only too well, this is not a problem of “rupees and cents,” but of safeguarding an employee’s right to be treated with humanity and dignity. It is extremely difficult to avoid the impression that government policy on foreign employment is driven by the objective of maximizing remittances, with little consideration for the safety and dignity of workers overseas. Are these workers being considered ‘dispensable’ because they are poor? And because there will always be others to replace them?
In order to create safer overseas employment conditions for Sri Lanka’s citizens, activists say the government needs to enter into bilateral agreements with the host countries. Sri Lanka’s cordial relations with West Asian countries could facilitate such agreements. The practice of signing a “memorandum of understanding” may help in matters such as agreeing on the number of jobs, rates of pay, etc. But a memorandum is not as binding as a bilateral agreement between the Labour Ministries of the two countries.
Such an agreement, if entered into, would allow the government of the host country to act when a problem arises, at the request of the Sri Lankan state. The Sri Lankan state’s right to make that request could only come from a bilateral agreement that has written provision for our consular services to intervene.
The writer is a senior freelance journalist.