Mothers, sisters and daughters of Sri Lanka as household employees in the petro-dollar world – do we care for them? The mother is the most venerated person, may be the world over. In Sri Lanka too the mother is the most respected person in society; it is our culture seeped in Buddism that has made [...]

Sunday Times 2

Slaving in West Asia


Mothers, sisters and daughters of Sri Lanka as household employees in the petro-dollar world – do we care for them?
The mother is the most venerated person, may be the world over. In Sri Lanka too the mother is the most respected person in society; it is our culture seeped in Buddism that has made it so.

Lankan West Asian returnees at the Katunayake airport. With their new wealth Arab females did not want to do house work: They employed women either locally from among Bedouins or from cash-strapped countries in Asia

In the Maha Mangala Sutta, ‘Matha Pithu Upatthanam’, looking after the mother and father is considered a blessed act. In many of the teachings of the blessed one, protection and veneration of the mother is equal to veneration of the blessed one himself; it was the mother of the Bodhi Sathva who gave the first ‘Vivarana’, the boon and blessings for him to become the future Buddha. We call ourselves the proud inheritors of that doctrine of the Buddha but as a country which boasts of being Buddhist, it is sad to see the economic circumstances in the country that forces mothers to leave for work abroad, to feed the children where they undergo untold harassment.

The Buddha held mothers, sisters and daughters, females in general, in esteem, of that there is ample evidence in the theri gatha of the services he rendered to ameliorate their conditions. The famous biographies of Kisagothami, Patachara, and Rajjumala are only some examples. The blessed one was the first benefactor to females, who initiated for them emancipation from worldly chores and cleared the way for the establishment of the bhikkuni sasana. We call ourselves the followers of this Buddhist doctrine and the traditions that came with the teachings. We should speak to our conscience and honestly ask if we treat our mothers, sisters and daughters with the respect that they richly deserve. One glaring instance of our non-concern, is the export of this most precious segment of the society to earn our living, in the form of petro-dollars.

The other religions followed in Sri Lanka, namely, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam too teach respect of the mother, the sister and daughter in society. Hinduism has goddesses in the Pantheon. The respect that Christianity showers on mother Mary and the exhortation of Jesus Christ that if there are no-sinners let the first stone be pelted at a female who was to be stoned to death, charged with a so-called sin, demonstrates the protection accorded to females by Jesus Christ. Prophet Mohammed has sermonised that women should be protected and looked after.

The country which professes all these great religions, exports mothers, sisters and daughters to Middle East countries, predominantly Islamic, to earn much needed foreign exchange. Females in most poverty-stricken families of Sri Lanka are the ones who toil in these Middle-East households of the wealthy; they slave for the sake of their loved-ones in Sri Lanka. The tragedies they undergo are of no concern to the persons who rule our thrice blessed land. I myself feel ashamed to have seen these with my own eyes; I reported what I felt, but the powers that ruled Sri Lanka have done precious nothing, either to lessen their woes, or to stop their exodus to these countries. Our recommendations have been gathering dust may be in some archives, or destroyed.

For once the late G.M. Premachandra, the Labour Minister of the Ranasinghe Premdasa Government banned the sending of women to the Middle-East just before the first Kuwait war of 1990s. When he visited Kuwait in late 1980s he was sent to the Labour Agencies by the Sri Lanka Embassy to see for himself the neo -form of slavery, perpetrated on our female folk to prove that it was definitely a neo-form of slave trade, per-se. He visited the unscrupulous agencies located in a building called Glass-House, in Kuwait City. He posed as an employer and asked agencies to provide a housemaid for his residence.

The agents had prices tagged on to the females there and offered him anyone whom he likes; the Minister felt that the prices pegged on them was based on their ‘looks’ or the youthfulness they exhibited. He returned to the embassy agitated and emotional after what he saw there. He told us that he will ban this slavery, no sooner he returns to Sri Lanka. He kept to his word much to the chagrin of the perpetrators of the trade in Sri Lanka. This was in late 1980s but it started once again, after the first Gulf war, going-up to unthinkable proportions. The ambassador and I were summoned to the Foreign Ministry of Kuwait and we had to explain to the Kuwait Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs why our Minister visited a labour agency. We were not made ‘persona non-grata’, by sheer circumstances.

The much respected Indian Prime Minister the late Indira Gandhi in the 1980s banned Indian females from going to the Middle East for these menial jobs. Bangladesh did the same, and Pakistan does not send females as domestic workers. Bhutan does not send their females and Nepal has curtailed it. Maldives does the same. We are the proud sons from South Asia who send our females to bring us dinars and dirhams and riyals from these petro dollar havens.

This slavery has a long history. History records slaves of under-world civilizations, Greek, Roman, Arab, and Western, and more recently under the Colonial regimes. In order to make this essay short we will look at only the last, as it has relevance to this article. The British, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch traded in human beings from their colonies to work in their economic enterprises, both at home and abroad. The present Afro-Americans, and Native Indians in the US, the Asian Ghettos in Europe, and Indian up country population in our own country, are the remnants of these colonial inhumane acts. To make a long story short and relevant, we could say that this trade ended with the end of colonialism in the mid 1950s, but left its gory dark patches in West Africa especially in countries like Senegal and Gambia, where there are memorials. During the first half of the last century, oil was found in the Arab world and was exploited by western colonialists, till they left the region in the 1960s and 1970s. The products were exported to the Industrial west while the Arabs were herdsmen and the male workers were from Africa and India. When the oil-wealth was nationalised, as colonialists left, the Arabs became rich with oil-money. Those who drove the camel then, now could drive a Cadillac. It became thus, a story of “camel to Cadillac.”

It was here that the neo-form of slavery came to roost, in the Middle-East. In fact the Arabs were used to having slaves in the past and it was near normal for the slaves to be inhumanely treated. Even with the newly found wealth the structure their social norms did not change much. With the new wealth, the Arab female did not want to do household work; they employed women either locally from among Bedouins, or from cash-strapped countries in Asia. We very willingly became the scapegoats in this conundrum since the 1970s. Under the 1970 Sri Lankan Government a few male Sri Lankans were employed in the oil companies as professionals. With the liberal open economy of 1978 even non-professionals in labour categories left for employment in the Middle-East. The female exodus came as a corollary to fill the vacancy created by the non working ‘Arab mama’. Our Buddhist value systems broke asunder in the face of individual poverty.

Our expatriate workers got caught even in the cycle of political conflicts prevalent in the Middle East since the 1970s, and the worst-suffering was inflicted on the female segment. I may have to cite my personal experiences during some of these conflicts that the reader may have to bear with me for relating. It is only to elucidate the nature of the suffering of these poor souls.

I was in our Mission in London and in June 1982 the Israelis attacked Lebanon, especially the Palestinian positions. Our people were employed in Lebanon, but there was no Sri Lankan Embassy in Beirut and the people’s welfare was looked after by the British Embassy. I was sent to Lebanon with Mr. A.H. Seneviratne serving in Rome, by the Foreign Minister the late A.C.S. Hameed, to evacuate these people. We had to live in that war-torn country for six long months, looking into the welfare of Sri Lankans. It was in 1982 that the infamous massacres of Palestinians numbering 1500, in Shabra and Shatila and Bourj Barajni camps was carried out by the Israelis. It was then that young President Bashir Gemayel was killed while we were watching the shelling. It was a very hard time but we endured and evacuated all those Sri Lankans via Cyprus and Damascus in Syria. We were nearly victims of a bomb one afternoon when returning to our accommodation. Our compatriots were in jails, hospitals, make-shift camps, and left in the lurch in apartments by employers. There were a few with babies born due to forced relations with employers. Although we could not find solutions to all these we managed to rescue them with the good offices of the British Ambassador and his helpful staff.

We finished our assignment in January 1983 and submitted a report with recommendations. Some have been implemented but not the major one where we recommended a ban to be imposed on females leaving for war-torn countries. The ones implemented are sending off trained labour officers to our Missions, opening Missions in all Middle-East countries, and persuading labour-receiving countries to abide by International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United Nations (UN) Conventions. Some countries have not honoured all conventions and we are free to stop our female employees working in those countries. The trade continues unabated.

More recently, in 2007, I gave an interview to Al Jazeera and I titled it the Story of sweat, blood and tears, referring to the slave trade while I was Ambassador in Qatar. Most of my Ambassador colleagues called me seeing this programme, and jokingly advised me to pack my bags as I had spoken critically of the regimes in the Middle East. However the Emir of Qatar had asked his Labour Minister to have a chat with me to find solutions to the issues raised. I was called and we discussed matters with the Qatari Human Rights Committee. Some issues like non-payment of salaries, ill-treatment, sexual abuse and over-work were looked into and we were allowed to file cases against perpetrators, both employers and recruiting agents.

Recent reports on abuse from all Middle-East countries reflect that the same kind of slave-master relationship continues which commenced in the 1970s. One may ask what the solution to this human-trafficking is. The most respectable solution is to stop/ ban export of ladies as house maids especially to the Middle-East countries. This will not be a palatable solution to the Government, as it will close the doors to a substantial foreign-exchange earner, to a country which is cash-strapped. However, that is the most dignified solution which should come from a country with superlative ethics and religious values, which respects rights of women.

Certain social problems which have raised their heads like broken families, children becoming school-drop-outs, their vulnerability to other social ills, and the empirical effect it has on the generations to come should open our eyes to this mode of earning petro-dollars.

The long term solution is to create employment in the country and educate young females in respectable professions, like nursing, (not washing dishes in an unfriendly households,) employing them in scientific agricultural, commercial pursuits, expanding the private-sector to absorb them, taking new IT technology to under-privileged regions to educate the unemployed and creating an overall environment for young females to be part and parcel of the development of the country.

If however, they are sent abroad the employment should be in these prestigious segments. This issue needs debate in the country among economists, intellectuals, educators, the private sector, opinion makers, womens’ organisations and officials of the Employment Ministry and Foreign Ministry and of course, religious dignitaries to formulate a dignified action plan.

(The writer was an ambassador.)

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