Oops … I have got writer’s block. This sunny Thursday morning after a rainy Wednesday I was staring at the computer wondering with unease what to write. For the first time in many months I was stumped – no topic, no idea for the Sunday column. I then turned towards the Margosa tree looking for [...]

Business Times

Caring for migrant workers


Oops … I have got writer’s block.

This sunny Thursday morning after a rainy Wednesday I was staring at the computer wondering with unease what to write. For the first time in many months I was stumped – no topic, no idea for the Sunday column. I then turned towards the Margosa tree looking for inspiration from Kussi Amma Sera and her friends, Mabel Rasthiyadu and Serapina. That apparently worked!

“Ada puvathpathvala meda peradiga kamkaruvan gena honda kathavak thiyenawa (Today’s papers have a good story about migrant workers),” Kussi Amma Sera said. “Eh mokakda (What is that)?” asked Serapina. “Kafala kramaya ivat kireema (Removal of the Kafala system),” replied Kussi Amma Sera. “Eka kohomada kriyathmaka venne (How does this system work)?” asked Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Just as Kussi Amma Sera was explaining a system that has plagued working conditions in West Asia for thousands of workers from Sri Lanka and other countries, the phone rang. It was know-all neighbour Haramanis of broken English fame and ironically he wanted to discuss the same topic!

“I shay … good news in the papers, no,” he said merrily, greeting me. “What is it buddy,” I asked. “Why they are going to scrap the Kafala system. Good, no,” he said.

He was referring to a report in the newspapers which said that Qatar had announced sweeping reforms to its labour market, with a view to ending the Kafala system and ensuring the rights of migrant workers. According to a media release by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), on October 16, the Council of Ministers of the State of Qatar had unanimously endorsed new legislation, effective from January 2020, allowing workers to change employers freely

Workers in Qatar had previously required a no-objection certificate (NOC) from their employer in order to do so. A Decree by the Minister of Interior was also signed, removing exit permit requirements for all workers, except military personnel. Together, these steps mark the end of Kafala in the country, the ILO said, praising the move.

While the Kafala system under which the passports of workers are kept by the employer or sponsor until their return home at the end of their one or two year contract would cease to exist in Qatar, it still prevails in other countries. The Qatar move, however, is likely to pave the way for similar initiatives in other West Asia countries. The move by Qatar authorities is widely believed to be connected to the country’s hosting of the FIFA soccer World Cup tournament in December 2019, a sports extravaganza drawing thousands of fans from across the world. There have been growing calls from human rights activists over rights of workers in the normally harsh conditions which confront workers in West Asia, surrendering your passport to the employer being one of them. Qatar is also hosting several other international sporting events and wants to be seen as a ‘good’ employer in the eyes of the world, to promote its status as a centre for international sporting events.

The Qatar move to allow freedom of movement and changing of jobs is a huge step forward in improving the conditions and rights of workers.

“This is a very good move. However, what do you think about what presidential candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake said the other day on migrant workers?” asked Haramanis.

“What did he say,” I asked. “Well he says that they (the JVP-led National People’s Power movement) would stop women going for work to West Asia as domestic workers because they are confronted with many problems,” replied Haramanis.

“I don’t think that is a good idea,” I said and explained in detail that women go abroad for two reasons – to ensure a better life for their families by earning a decent income overseas and secure their economic independence. For many years, governments while on one hand benefiting by the millions of foreign exchange earned by these workers that accrue to the country and help to pay off imports, have also tried many ways of limiting the exit of female domestic workers without much success.

The simple reason is that women now cherish this economic independence which they don’t have at home. However, if there are enough jobs to go around, then women would prefer to work at home. Without making a rash statement like stopping women from going abroad (it’s their right) for work, politicians need to also address the huge crisis it would trigger at home when these women don’t have jobs on one hand and not being able to fill the country’s coffers in foreign exchange, on the other hand.

Sri Lankan migrant workers perform a valuable role that is often ignored by the public in terms of their contribution to the economy and should be treated with respect. Yes, Sri Lanka migrant workers face many hardships in working abroad but that has to be countered by improving conditions at their workplace and the Qatar move is a good example in that direction; not stopping their right to seek employment overseas. The Qatar move also underscores the importance of officials from labour-sending countries continuing to work with their counterparts in labour-receiving countries, to improve conditions in the workplace and also to restore the respect and dignity of these workers.

More than 1.5 million Sri Lankans, mostly based in West Asia, work overseas with around 150,000 migrating for work annually. Remittances from them are around US$7 billion a year and is the highest foreign exchange earner for the country. Saudi Arabia has the largest number of Sri Lankan workers. Yes, many of the women who migrate to West Asia for work do so sometimes at a risk to their lives. Numerous are the stories of suffering that these women have to endure in the homes of their sponsors, often because they are unable to understand the language or due to excessive work, too many people to take care of and too little sleep. But that has to be handled by ensuring better work conditions, not barring their right to travel.

“Saudi Arabiyave kam-karuvan wate thiyena condesith venas karoth hondai (It is good if the conditions governing the workers in Saudi Arabia are also changed),” said Kussi Amma Sera, who has a relative working there. Mabel Rasthiyadu and Serapina nodded in agreement.

A few minutes later, as I was furiously typing the keys of the computer (more out of satisfaction at being able to find a topic for this Sunday’s column), in walked Kussi Amma Sera with my second cup of – this time – plain tea. “Ape kanthavan dan videsha ratawalata giyahama arakshava thiyeda (Will our women be safer abroad now)?” she asked.

“Bala-porottu venawa……..bala-porottu venawa (Hopefully…hopefully),” I said, settling down to relax after writing about an issue that confronts Sri Lankan women abroad.

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