By Vijita Fernando
The world has almost forgotten the plight of Rizana Nafeek, the Sri Lankan teenager who was sentenced to death for the alleged killing of her employer’s infant during her three months’ stay as a housemaid in a wealthy Saudi household in 2005.
Rizana’s story is not a pretty one. A Sri Lankan job agent changed her age from 15 to 17, four years ago, enabling her to go abroad as a housemaid. She travelled on this false passport and secured employment in a place entirely unfamiliar to her. There she had to look after an infant of a few weeks who choked on his bottle and died.
Since Rizana had never fed an infant before, she did not know what to do. The infant’s parents handed her over to the police, who got her to sign a confession in Arabic, a language she could not read, and on this ‘confession’ she was summarily tried and condemned to death. The judicial system responsible for this sentence has been condemned by the Sri Lankan authorities, Amnesty International and the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, who were able to get the execution date deferred.
Though the date of her beheading has passed by, Rizana, now 19, has been languishing in jail for the past four years, waiting for her fate to be decided – a pardon from her previous employer, or death.
The stories of Sri Lankan housemaids being ill treated, beaten, tortured and sometimes killed overseas are legion. The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), the government agency responsible for all aspects of migration of workers abroad, notes that there has been a tenfold increase in the number of migrants in the last two decades. Current estimates suggest that over one million migrants are working abroad with an annual outflow of about 200,000 men and women. Of this number an average of 54 per cent are women in low skilled domestic work.
The feminisation of the migrant labour force is a unique character of the country with the number of women migrants increasing every year. In 2007, 114,677, or 52 per cent, of the total migrants were women. Generally, women amount to about 54 per cent of migrants. Over the years, foreign employment has generated substantial inflow of remittances, relieved local employment pressures and provided employment especially to women.
The migrant profile is a woman between 18 and 45, uneducated, usually married with children and dependent parents. They hail from low-income communities. The biggest demand for them is from the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai, Jordan, Jeddah, Lebanon, and from Singapore. There is marginal demand from Turkey, Cyprus and the United States as well.
Unfortunately, while these women go abroad to work housemaids but once they are there the job descriptions includes much more than household chores like cooking and cleaning. “What we find is that we have to look after large extended families, clean two-three storey houses, wash about four cars, care for infants and elderly and sometimes bed-ridden old people. We hardly get any sleep and are always working,” reveals K.P. Millie Nona, 50, who worked in Kuwait for four years.
At 20, Sujeeva Anoma Ranasinghe was a mother of a one-year-old son when she went to Jordan to work as a housemaid. She worked under a kind family fort eight years with a break of one month every two years. She was able to build a house and move away from the slum where she lived. But what she gained in money she paid for with the estrangement of her son and husband. “When I came back four years ago I decided never to go back, forget about the money and see that my son gets on track and goes to school,” she says.
Migrant workers do face many problems, whether it is at their workplace or back home, but their contribution is vital both for the country’s economy and for their impoverished families. Therefore, to ensure that their interests are protected, the newly-created Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare has just released a National Policy on Labour Migration. “The National Labour Migration Policy represents a unique and pioneering initiative for the South Asian region… articulating state commitment to ensuring a labour migration process that adheres to the principles of good governance and the rights and responsibilities enshrined in international instruments to advance opportunities for men and women to engage in decent and productive employment in conditions of freedom, dignity, security and equity,” said K. Rambukwella, Minister for Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, while introducing the policy.
The policy, which covers all levels of migrants – skilled, unskilled and professional and both men and women – was developed under the overall guidance of the Tripartite Steering Committee (TSC). The TSC consisted of representatives of concerned ministries, the University of Colombo, Vocational Education Commission, Employers Federation, Trade Unions, Economic Research Division of the Central Bank, Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies and Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya. Prof. Siri Hettige of the Department of Sociology and Dr Markus Meyer of the Social Policy Analysis Research Centre, University of Colombo, were the advisors.
“The migration policy has been developed with the active participation of all key stakeholder and it outlines Sri Lanka’s commitment to a process of labour migration consistent with good governance, protection of migrant workers and development objectives… Steps have already been taken to appoint the National Advisory Committee comprising representatives of government, trade unions, employment agencies and civil society to ensure proper implementation,” reveals Ramani Jayasundere, Process Manager of the formulation for the Policy.
In view of the problems and travails suffered by women migrants the national policy comes as a vital piece of legislation. According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, probing the various forms of abuse suffered by women migrant workers from Sri Lanka, a large percentage of ‘housemaids’, who are employed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates return “in distress”. Sometimes they return mentally disturbed, crippled in wheel chairs and occasionally, in a coffin. “Labour laws in many of these countries exclude migrant domestic workers from the most basic protections – unpaid wages, sexual harassment, overwork,” reports HRW.
The story of Sri Lankan women migrants unfolds startling contradictions. Their migration causes untold problems for their children and family, instances of frittering away of earnings sent home have caused mental trauma. Once they were back, some women have also resorted to prostitution to earn the kind of money they were paid abroad. On the other hand, their earnings have brought better nutrition for their children, higher schooling, better housing, safe water, electricity, gas, telephones and much needed hygienic toilets. The country benefits, too. The 2007 report of the Central Bank states that the inward foreign remittances from migrants were US$ 2505 million that year. On an average this provided 1.45 million households with an additional income of Rs. 16,000 (approx. US$150) monthly. Of this women’s contribution is about 60 per cent.
Already, a training programme to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes of prospective migrants in accordance with international levels has been launched by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Under the national policy other areas of concern such as safety, fair work and fair salaries will also be dealt with. The rationale for the policy is “that the country’s labour migration process has a number of pressing issues, which demand attention. Despite diverse initiatives both by the state and the non-government community, they face a multitude of obstacles at all stages of the process; pre departure, in service and upon return and reintegration. Much of this stems from the fact that the majority fall within low killed and housemaid categories…,” says Jayasundere.
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