It’s no secret that life is a terrible ordeal for most housemaids working in West Asia. The hardships they endure to send money home come at great cost. At the time of writing – 7.30 p.m. in Sri Lanka–it is possible that in Saudi Arabia, where it now is 2 a.m. –thousands of Sri Lankan [...]


Trapped in their escape hatch from poverty

Sriyani Tidball’s The Breadwinner provides an intimate view of the harsh realities of housemaids in West Asia, writes Daleena Samara

A voice for the voiceless: Sriyani Tidball with kids from ‘Community Concern’

It’s no secret that life is a terrible ordeal for most housemaids working in West Asia. The hardships they endure to send money home come at great cost.

At the time of writing – 7.30 p.m. in Sri Lanka–it is possible that in Saudi Arabia, where it now is 2 a.m. –thousands of Sri Lankan housemaids will only just be ending their workday, preparing to sleep just four to five hours before work begins again. It is also possible that at this moment, their men will be wasting the money they earn on alcohol, drugs or other women. It is equally possible that their children will be neglected. In some instances, their men may want to have sex with their daughter who has taken on the role of her mother.

Too often, these women have little or no means of contact with their families because their employers have confiscated their passport and mobile phone. Isolated in a hostile world, they are merely the breadwinner, a channel of finance for their families. For the rest of us, they are an important cog in Sri Lanka’s economic wheel, contributing seven to nine billion US dollars to the nation’s coffers each year. Yet they sit at the bottom of the ladder of national priorities; stark evidence is the way they were left to languish in host countries in West Asia that no longer wanted them at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is the cause of such women that Sriyani Tidball’s compelling nonfiction debut ‘The Breadwinner’ advocates. The culmination of five years of Fulbright scholarship, the book digs deep beneath the surface of Sri Lanka’s housemaid industry to reveal the anguish of the women who venture out to West Asia to escape poverty, only to find themselves enslaved in a different hell. Importantly, The Breadwinner is an urgent cry for corrective action for their protection. It also suggests solutions.

In 2015, Sriyani received a Fulbright award to research the motivations of Sri Lankan women engaging in domestic work in West Asia. Over the following years, she collected data from 100 housemaid returnees from the Gulf, and 100 women preparing to take up employment as housemaids there.

The Breadwinner collates their experiences, alternated with observations and glimpses of Sriyani’s own journey from childhood to academia and human rights advocacy. It is an important sharing because housemaids usually command public attention only through the value of their remittances, or when they become a news item, usually tragic.  Individual stories breathe life into concepts and taken together offer a broad and intimate view of the harsh realities that they face overseas.

Sriyani says that the saddest part of talking to returnees was that most said no one ever asked about their stay in West Asia. All that was wanted of them was money sent back home. What went into making the money was something only experience could convey.

Working with the marginalised

The daughter of Sri Lanka’s advertising great, Reggie Candappa, Sriyani is no stranger to poverty. Over the past 40 years, Community Concern, a non-profit Christian organisation she and husband Tom Tidball founded in 1980, has worked closely with the poor in Sri Lanka.

Community Concern, born on the Mount Lavinia-Dehiwela beachfront from the couple’s efforts to help one impoverished young woman and her infant, is now an oasis of care for the poor in the neighbourhood and beyond, providing services including day-care, soup kitchens, a youth fitness centre, drug rehabilitation, a safe home for abused women, and skills-building. It records numerous success stories of lifting men, women and children out of poverty.

Sriyani divides her time between Sri Lanka and the USA, where she was Assistant Professor at the Department of Journalism of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) for ten years. She advocates against human trafficking in both Nebraska and Sri Lanka and oversees the Human Trafficking Initiative at UNL among other things. She and Tom continue volunteering at Community Concern.

Poverty is the cause

Poverty drives most women to seek employment as housemaids in West Asia, says Sriyani. While some come from somewhat stable homes and simply want a better life – to fund a wedding, educate children or build a house, the majority are mired in poverty, gravely indebted to loan sharks or subjected to domestic abuse by alcoholic or drug addict spouses, or infidelity. For them, West Asia an escape hatch.

But stepping out of even the most toxic comfort zone can be a leap from frying pan to fire, for once the decision to work in West Asia is taken, hazards await at every turn. The Breadwinner identifies the risks and brings them to life through shared lived experiences.

Central to the problem is the kalafa or sponsorship system. In the Gulf states and in Lebanon and Jordan, domestic work falls under kalafa, and not under the labour laws that protect workers by establishing parameters of minimum wage and working conditions. Sponsors are responsible for their housemaids from arrival to departure and free to make up the rules as they go along.

This leaves the housemaid vulnerable to abuse. So there is little they can do if agents change contracts on arrival, and employers impose inhumane workloads. Accounts of exhausting 14- or even 20-hour days and seven-day weeks with no holidays for the entire duration of the contract tumble out of these pages, along with the hunger of having a single meal of leftovers a day. Verbal, physical and, sometimes, sexual abuse takes place with no recourse or even acknowledgment of abuse. Fleeing the sponsor leaves the woman adrift and she may remain stuck in embassy safehouses. The Breadwinner offers windows into numerous harrowing experiences.

Employers also have the discretion to shorten or lengthen contracts because the domestics cannot leave the country without a sponsor’s written consent. In one instance, a new hire’s sponsor subcontracted her out as a housemaid to different households each month for a fee much higher than what she had been promised.

The Breadwinner offers accounts of housemaids sent back home because of ill health, sometimes unpaid. Pay day could also vary, with some getting paid annually or at the end of the contract or not at all. Verbal abuse is commonplace, along with physical and sexual abuse and even eye-witness accounts of homicide.

Occasionally, a maid dies overseas. However, her body may never be returned to Sri Lanka, and there have been cases when it was returned without vital organs.

The book cites Rizana Nafeek, the 17-year-old who posed as an 18-year-old to travel to Saudi to work as a domestic to supplement her family’s meagre income. She  was beheaded for alleged murder of the infant in her care, although she pleaded not guilty. Appeals for clemency from across the world failed, revealing just how helpless these women are under Sharia law.

Nevertheless, Rizana’s execution did not deter women from going to the Gulf. The initial shock of her execution caused a drop in migration, and the trend has reversed in recent years, with a 16 percent increase in 2018 over 2017, with 64,965 people taking up domestic work overseas, compared to 55,884 in the previous year. Their main destinations in West Asia were Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.

Why do they go?

Debt is the most common reason for leaving, says Sriyani. Poverty-stricken neighbourhoods are happy hunting grounds of unscrupulous money lenders who extend loans to the needy in return for exorbitant interest rates and threaten physical violence if the interest payments are not made on a timely basis.

Recent years have seen the rise of a new form of loansharking by agents: the offer of attractive lump-sum payments of US$ 1500-2000 upfront in two instalments for women seeking employment as housemaids.Some recruitment agents employ sub-agents to visit remote rural areas and entice unsuspecting women. The recent upsurge of housemaids to West Asia is attributed to these payments.

This offer too is a debt trap, forcing the woman to continue working under horrendous conditions because she is now indebted toher job agent. The woman who found herself subcontracted is one. Unable to break her contract because her family had spent the entire sum given by the agent, she endured intolerable workloads and abuse until her two-year contract ended.

Was it worth the trouble?

It is common knowledge that migrant women are changing the face of rural Sri Lanka where, due to their hard labour, modern village homes have been replacing wattle and daub huts in recent decades. But behind the whitewash lies a sad truth: family breakdown.

Volunteering at Community Concern has made Sriyani deeply aware of the dangers facing children who grow up away from their mother. Without a mother by their side, young children are susceptible to a host of problems such as abuse, neglect, poor academic performance, drug use and sexual abuse. Teenage pregnancies are rife, as are husbands addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Supportive husbands are crucial to a successful migrant experience, she says. However, husbands who take full responsibility for the family are too few. More common is the alcoholic or drug addict spouse, the very reason why the money a woman earns may quickly disappear. Broken marriages are common. For the woman who returns home traumatised from years of sustained labour and little rest, it can be devastating. Mental health problems ensue.

The Breadwinner shows that many of these women are survivors, picking up the pieces of a broken home and carrying on as best as they can. But she wonders, is there a better way to go about this.

How prepared are our women?

In her research, Sriyani explored the preparedness of these women for the jobs. She found that the majority anticipated hard work ahead, but seemed to believe they would spared bad experiences. She questions the adequacy of the pre-departure training provided by government, and believes more awareness building of all risks is necessary.

The Breadwinner closes on a note of hope. J-Shakthi, a new initiative under the Community Concern umbrella, is empowering women through vision and skills building. So far, 300 women have benefited. Some of them are earning much more than they would in West Asia, without the heartache of breaking their families and hearts.

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