By Dr. Mervyn D. De Silva (Former Director, Ministry of Plan Implementation, ex-SLFP Nationalist MP) Many are the voices that have been raised and focused on the raging imbalances and inequality created by the 10 Commandments of the Washington consensus and, the dominant development paradigm that was promoted with much missionary zeal. Many are also [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Women-migrants: Caught in the chain of poverty


By Dr. Mervyn D. De Silva

(Former Director, Ministry of Plan
Implementation, ex-SLFP Nationalist MP)

Many are the voices that have been raised and focused on the raging imbalances and inequality created by the 10 Commandments of the Washington consensus and, the dominant development paradigm that was promoted with much missionary zeal. Many are also the heart rending accounts of the pain and agony consequences by the resulting distortion in the distribution of wealth that has become a major factor in creating migration of labour in the Asian region, particularly of women.

Apart from the many authentic stories that have time and again been highlighted, the plight and sadder endings in the lives of these migrants have fallen on deaf political ears. Migrant labour, in fact, has now become increasingly a much sought after “resource” to be exploited in profit maximisation, the governing principle of neo-liberal economic policy strategies. Obtaining a deeper knowledge and understanding of the global and regional context that form the environment in which poverty- stricken, desperate millions in Asia, as well as thousands in our own country, see migration as the only means of survival, is a public obligation.

Separation from their loved ones and families and working in unfamiliar lands and cultural settings is the only chance for lifting themselves from the grip of poverty. For solutions to be found every Third World citizen, the politicians they elect, the Heads of the religions they profess, must be aware and clearly understand the reasons why the poor in their countries migrated in the past, and continue to do so in the present, not as a matter of choice but as a compelling necessity.

The enlightened and sensitive leaders of civil society and concerned socio-economic organisations should conscientise and influence political leaders and the general public; not by holding the hackneyed and ubiquitous seminars in 5-star hotels, but by working out together pragmatic innovative plans with the people concerned participating. To the horror of the author, once, following a seminar where absolutely no hard decisions were taken for implementation, a group of participants were heard remarking “that was a fine discussion”!! An end in itself.

There seems to be much space, if there is a will, to work out multi-sectoral plans and present them as alternatives to the dominant economic model that is leading billions into the cauldron of poverty. No need to expel it lock, stock, and barrel in 24-hours, but to examine it critically and clinically and remove all anti-people policies often hidden between the lines or, embedded in the small print.
It is perfectly correct that considering the fact that the materialist-consumer culture has reached a crescendo, where timeless values of altruism no longer dwells in the lives of the majority of citizens the world over, it may seem an impossibility. Yet, now that doubts about the validity of the dominant Neo-liberal model are beginning to be raised in serial succession in the not too distant future. Under the economic model in question during the last three decades the gap between the North, led by the United States whose policies according to Dr. Paul Krugman ” has been captured by the super-rich and the religious right”, and the south clearly widened.

In contrast to the countries of the North, those in the south are primarily agriculture –based economies, and any decline in the prices of commodities they produce, combined with the incessant price increases of imported inputs means that barter terms of trade shift markedly against the poor nations of the world. Factor in, the working of the “fair” trade principle as it is hypocritically applied and, the staggering figure of US$349 billion doled out in the form of subsidies to the rural farmers of the North in 2003. The US “gifts” to its cotton farmers $3 billion to grow the crop and then captures 40 per cent of the global cotton market. Oxfam reports that the EU spends 3.3 Euros for every Euro of export of sugar, while, Japan imposes an import tariff of 50 per cent on rice imports.

How is the farming community in rural Sri Lanka, from whence the migrants come, treated by our political leaders? Do the farmers in Mahaweli, Angunakolapellasa, Jaffna, Kantalai, Bibile or Ampara enjoy even a decimal fraction of the support the farmers in the countries of origin of the mandarins of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, hail from?

Farmer, R. G. Somapala took his life in the late nineties because of indebtedness and, dying. He said, “I drank poison to die. There is no need to save me. I want to die in my fields. But, I shall return as a re-incarnated cobra or viper and attack those who made me die”.

It is from rural families that have become desperate because farming has been made unprofitable, and has been neglected that the majority of migrants emerge. With the dismantling of the rural economy and existing food security systems, too early and too fast, by a raft of policies that masqueraded as honest development supported by economic theories that lacked even an iota of humanism, the tide of migration to the cities or, to foreign countries began.

Further, the unfavourable terms of trade, created food dependency, job losses in the rural sector, and devious and hidden forms of exploitation under the banner of neo-liberal economics, forced these nations to borrow heavily from external sources to buy food and meet deficits in their national accounts. When the debt burden increased exponentially in both relative and absolute terms, more loans were needed, plunging the poor in these countries into further misery.

Since ethics, had been banished from mainstream economic thinking (noble laureates Gunnar Murdal and Amartya Sen strongly differ), the powerful economic triad – USA, EU, and Japan, apart from rhetoric and cosmetic AID and grants, have shown no inclination to rectify the situation which for all intents and purposes is economic and financial Imperialism colonialism. They, in fact, flee from looking at the deep rooted cause, just as they do for terrorism, which propagates in the “well laid out” medium of social and economic injustice.

When countries are pushed to meeting escalating foreign debt payments and other bills, they are compelled to:-
1. Accept the structural adjustment programmes and conditions imposed by the IMF, World Bank, and private capital sources. Documented reports of the experiences from all corners of the Third World have made it abundantly clear that they do ot work for the benefit of the majority of people, but simultaneously increases the level of misery and weakens the autonomy and independence of nation states. Typically, spending on physical and social infrastructure (education, healthcare, welfare measures) have to be cut back, while firm steps to protect and expand private enterprises, notably the activities of their multinational corporations, are canvassed.
2. Work in coordination with their multinational companies in pursuing unsustainable forms of natural resource extraction (Eppawella, Sinharaja, biodiversity) or export oriented agriculture to generate foreign exchange to service the countr’s debt commitments.

With the fate of the Third World (approximately two thirds of humankind) effectively sealed and held firmly in the grip, the economies of the North also transformed through unprecedented waves of mergers that saw the birth of massive corporations that are now the major economic actors in the global economy.

The conjuncture of the economic transformation of the rich North and the plight of the South that has virtually lost economic sovereignty has created a new global terrain for the unrestrained activities of the rich Triad through their multinational corporations. With the unequal power relationships they then dictate the terms of trade and investment.

When Third World countries fall in line with the policies that are crafted to benefit the countries of the “craftsmen”, more unemployment results in the rural areas and women are the most hard hit in providing for the family further, exacerbating in many ways their already vulnerable and subservient position.

When poverty grows in the debt-trapped countries, the poverty of women grow faster and one can safely conjecture that they are now the majority in the world often entirely responsible for their households. When they find their lot unbearable they take low-paying jobs in the formal sector no matter how far they have to travel or, eke out a living in the informal sector until they can get a job abroad,
Unfortunately the situation of the migrant worker in their new countries doesn’t match their dreams and may turn out to be worse than before. Many of them have to contend with exploitation and abuses ranging from non-payment or under-payment of wages, contract violation, and worse, physical violence leading to death. Abuses are escalating in the Middle East, Japan, Hong Kong and other relatively richer countries and a number are in jails (263 according to the Ministry of Labour), while others, return insane because of extreme abuse and stress. Recall the death of one of our girls in Kuwait in February, 1994, who jumped from the fifth floor apartment balcony apparently, trying to escape her male or female employer. And, now Rizana who was beheaded.

The crux of the matter is that export of female labour is an aberration, even though it contributes to the national budget. It is a clear reflection (or, indictment) of the inability of those who manage the economy to absorb its labour force and provide their own workers with opportunities for decent employment on a decent wage in their own country. All that is being narrated are hallucinations of their laziness, condemnations, grumblings on minor details, and a whole litany of skewed reasons. The political elite and their beneficiaries make no attempt to address basic causes and answer basic questions that are perceived to be in the minds of the migrants as they set out overseas. Why do so many of us have to be poor? Why are they not developing our villages and moving opportunities from the exclusive domain of the cities? Why do they not use every bit of our resources to the maximum? Why do our elected politicians take residence in the cities and make only flying visits to the people who appointed them? Why do they not pay us well and use our labour? Are existing government polices attuned to solving the scourge of poverty? Why are the followers of the different religious cultures at each others’ throats (jugulars, in fact) when the country and the world is swamped with so many man-made problems that has brought humanity to the brink of destruction? And, our country as well.

“I will not tire declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social and economic injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally” — Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was silenced by an assassin’s bullet on 24th March, 1980.

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