The case of the Sri Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia seeking clemency from a death by stoning sentence has grabbed the attention of the public, the media, human rights activists and politicians alike. The Government has claimed a Pyrrhic victory so far by having the case re-opened by way of appeal. While one could pray [...]


Exploiting poverty


The case of the Sri Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia seeking clemency from a death by stoning sentence has grabbed the attention of the public, the media, human rights activists and politicians alike.

The Government has claimed a Pyrrhic victory so far by having the case re-opened by way of appeal. While one could pray for mercy and a favourable outcome on behalf of the unfortunate woman, it is never an inappropriate time to focus on the issue of Sri Lankan workers overseas, especially the women in West Asia. The total contribution of this group of persons numbering more than a million to the state’s Treasury is a staggering US dollars seven billion (nearly a trillion Sri Lankan rupees) annually. This is the single largest foreign exchange earner and without it, this country would be doomed.

Yet for next year, the Government has allocated a miserable Rs. 1 billion of a Rs. 1.9 trillion budget – or a miserly 0.05 per cent to the Ministry of Foreign Employment — and this has been a continuing practice.

There is a clamour to provide these workers with voting rights. Nearly one in every 20 Sri Lankans is disenfranchised by being overseas. Despite being one of the first countries to enjoy universal franchise, Sri Lanka has been unable to move with the times. Logistical difficulties are a practical problem. But what of the day-to-day lives of these workers serving the nation by sending their wages home in the form of foreign exchange?

In the case of Saudi Arabia where the spotlight is on right now, there are an estimated 350,000 to half a million workers. There is no exact count because some overstay their visas and some don’t go through Government channels. This is very close to a third of the entire Sri Lankan workforce in West Asia. They work in harsh, remote and inhospitable environments in an oil-rich nation. Lonely, some with good employers, some with bad employers; they toil from early morning till late at night. Despite the harsh conditions, and some horror stories, 80,000 left for that Kingdom last year.

Saudi Arabia is governed not by Sharia Law in the strictest sense as is widely believed, but by a variation of it now commonly known as Saudi Law. It is not without its contradictions as is the case with all religions when it comes to implementation. In some cases the law is strictly applied only during certain months, like during the Haj season, and relaxed thereafter. It can confuse outsiders.

Sri Lankans going there are unfamiliar with the intricacies of these laws and the severe punishments they carry like being stoned to death and beheading. Some reports say that more than 60 people were beheaded this year on charges of “terrorism”.

This is why there was a worldwide outcry when Saudi Arabia was elected, to, of all places, the chairmanship of the key UN Human Rights Council panel that selects officials who shape global human rights agendas. It had the backing of the Western countries that are canvassing for the abolition of the death penalty in other parts of the world enhancing the UNHRC’s reputation for being centred more on geo-politics than human rights. Saudi Arabia is also seen as a country ‘exporting’ its brand of Sharia-based Saudi law ever since it struck rich with its petro-dollars and this in turn has been the breeding ground for “radicalised Islam” that these same Western countries are facing the brunt of. Some see this as a backlash to the West’s involvement in the militarisation of West Asia which keeps the wheels of violence and counter-violence turning.

In Sri Lanka, there is a call to ban sending these maids to Saudi Arabia. These calls emanate whenever there is a brutish form of punishment inflicted upon a Sri Lankan worker only to ‘die down’ as time goes by.

With more than a third of Sri Lankans working there remitting those petro-dollars, such a ban is easier said than done. The fact is, this country just cannot afford to impose one. But yet, there is so much that can be done to minimise the damage – from this end. There are remedies within the control of a Government but they are just not being taken.

Assigning more women officials, from diplomats to labour officers to counsellors to these countries is a simple remedy. Take Saudi Arabia; our mission in Riyadh, the capital has just 16 officials sent from Sri Lanka of whom seven are women; one is a labour officer who is a third secretary and in Jeddah there are five (two women). The grand total serving in Saudi Arabia sent from Sri Lanka is 21 (includes minor staff). With local staff it goes up to 55. They have few vehicles for a country that is one third the size of Europe, and to cater to a workforce of nearly half a million. Their petty cash is so low that they cannot provide funds often for those who could escape punishment by the payment of ‘blood money’ to families of victims for offences such as road accidents or other crimes.

While women officials may find it difficult to interact with a male dominated officialdom, they have a huge role to play in counselling women workers who sometimes fall from the frying pan into the fire by telling their woes to male officials when they visit Sri Lankan missions. Many cry out for an understanding soul who will empathise with their emotions, their worries and their health. As much as 65% of this workforce is women. That these countries don’t tolerate female diplomats is a myth propagated by vested interests to avoid serving in these ‘difficult stations’.

There is little purpose in demonstrating in front of the UN office in Colombo objecting to Saudi Arabia’s election to the UNHRC. Those activists must protest instead opposite relevant Government ministries asking for more practical action – at this end. Teaching a housemaid how to switch on a washing machine is not ‘training’ and the lackadaisical crackdown on bogus job agents, especially in the Eastern Province, is simply not good enough.

International Human Rights day was marked on December 10 but the West hardly bothers about the human rights of expatriate workers. The issue arose in Sri Lanka’s Parliament this week purely because of the death sentence hanging over the Sri Lankan woman in Saudi Arabia. The Foreign Minister said ‘quiet diplomacy’ was at work. Well and good, provided it is not ‘silent diplomacy’. The Finance Minister, of course, was wise enough to keep quiet as he tried to balance his budget with the Rs. one trillion coming in from West Asia. The Foreign Employment Minister said the Government is reviewing the sending of housemaids to West Asia and the Minister of Women and Children says they will be sent only if they have ‘genuine reasons’ — whoever may be the judge of that.

It is obvious that the Government has no clear vision on how to handle this delicate issue, torn as it is between moral and financial grounds. There is much criticism of West Asian countries exploiting Sri Lankan workers, but successive Governments in Sri Lanka have been the biggest exploiter of them all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.