In today’s world very few people challenge the Sri Lankan establishment in a court of law other than human rights groups, NGOs or some institution to assert their rights. For that matter, only a few individuals do. Thus our report about a migrant worker challenging the government on her fundamental right to travel and against [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Equal rights for migrant workers


In today’s world very few people challenge the Sri Lankan establishment in a court of law other than human rights groups, NGOs or some institution to assert their rights. For that matter, only a few individuals do.

Thus our report about a migrant worker challenging the government on her fundamental right to travel and against such movement being barred by her husband or any other official, is heart-warming news that some humble people are willing to rock the boat.
39 year-old Nilmini Kularathna from Sri Jayawardanepura, Kotte filed the petition in the Supreme Court last week complaining that under new rules enforced by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, a domestic worker has to get the clearance from the Grama Niladhari or Divisional Secretary. But when she went to her local official, the recommendation to travel which is a mandatory document was refused and she was also told she has to get her husband’s clearance.

Ms. Kularathna who was going on her second contract to the Middle East is unable to proceed as she doesn’t have this recommendation. She is separated from her husband and they don’t have children from the marriage, though the latter has children from his earlier marriage. Apart from challenging the gender bias in the rules where men are free to do whatever they want including freedom to travel without permission, this courageous woman says she is standing for what she believes is right on behalf of all the aggrieved women in Sri Lanka, facing the same problem of securing a ‘travel certificate’.

In many ways the manner in which the authorities have over the years handled unskilled outbound migration – particularly the humane part of labour export – is reflected in this shoddy piece of regulation which should have been clearly by the SLFBE’s legal authorities or the Attorney General on a matter that impedes fundamental rights.

The circular says that many domestic workers are going abroad without informing the authorities of the actual state of affairs at home in Sri Lanka or their illnesses which cannot be detected through medical investigation.

“Therefore all the licensed foreign employment agents are informed to get an assurance from such workers for a clearance of their state of affairs at home and for all other clearances. In such a case, if such issues are revealed after going abroad and request is made for repatriation, the local agent through which such an employee is recruited is responsible for repatriation of the employee at the cost of the local agent,” the circular says, while also attaches responsibility on the agent to get this ‘travel certificate’.

While migration of unskilled, mostly female workers as domestics has gone on for many decades, little has been done to change the laws governing migrant workers to make it more protective of their rights and needs. Recently, migrant workers mourned the death of David Soysa, a former deputy labour commissioner who founded the Migrant Workers Centre and played a stellar role in those early days when the foreign employment market began growing. It was Mr. Soysa who was instrumental in the first Act governing foreign employment. Unfortunately he didn’t live to see the day when the demand for voting rights for migrant workers, a proposal he had pushed for nearly a decade, becomes a reality. In the absence of a better framework of rights and protection of migrant workers, Mr. Soysa’s voting rights proposal would have made this 1.5 million population and their families (at least 6 million) a formidable vote base for any political party, which would then fight for their rights.

The fight by women to be treated equally is a decades-long battle but such discrimination at its worst is seen in the case of domestic workers. Most of the rules and regulations over the years for migrant workers have been focused on the mother as the mainstay and mandatory parent in the household. The man in the house is not seen as being equally responsible for the family and household matters. Thus the social breakdown in the family is often blamed on a woman going abroad even though her husband is also abroad or stays at home.

The latest rule is one in a series of gender discriminatory regulations enforced by the SLFBE. Women from Sri Lanka’s rural landscape go abroad for many reasons. While trying to save enough money to build a house, pay for the education of the children or collect enough money for a dowry to give the daughter in marriage, is the main criteria in securing foreign employment, some women find jobs to escape from an abusive husband.

The recent rules and regulations governing foreign employment are more and more discriminatory towards women. Ask the migrant workers’ rights groups, some of which include former migrant workers, and they have a litany of complaints over the gender-bias regulations.

Sometime ago there was a proposal to have a common uniform for domestic workers, ostensibly to be able to identify them at the airport or overseas and show off ‘our women who are bringing in foreign exchange to the country’.

That proposal, thankfully was not implemented because such a move would have led to these workers being the subject of sarcasm and ridicule by fellow Sri Lankans themselves, at the airport! Then the proposal to bar women with children below a particular age from going abroad because it affects the children’s growing years, was also abandoned when some groups threatened to challenge the right of any woman to travel abroad.

A recent proposal is about enforcing an age limit on women seeking foreign employment which it is hoped the authorities would have realised by now, cannot bar a woman from going overseas. In a family unit, both parents are equally responsible for the family unit and running a home must be a shared-responsibility.

Unfortunately that is not the case in an average middle class, Sri Lankan home where the woman after a hard days’ work, would go into the kitchen to cook the evening dinner and get up early next morning to prepare breakfast, wake up and dress the kids for school and also prepare a take-away lunch packet! The newest proposal is to reduce the number of housemaids travelling abroad to a complete halt in coming years, all because women suffer the most abroad due to lack of understanding their job profile, long working hours and no sleep or an abusive employer. However banning women from travel or imposing restrictive ‘travel certificates’ is certainly not the answer in this quagmire. The answer lies in treating women and men as equals and then finding solutions to the problems of female migration.

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