Recently a group of female domestic aids arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport on a SriLankan Airline flight from Kuwait. At the airport arrival lounge itself, they lamented how they experienced numerous hardships, varying from mental to physical harassment, and the worse being not being paid their wages; and also complained how their employers neglected them during their illnesses. This latest group of 45 women, who returned from Kuwait, was facilitated by Sri Lanka’s Bureau of Foreign Employment and the Sri Lankan Embassy in Kuwait. The group consisted of females from different parts of the country, and their travelling expenses to their home destinations were borne by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), as per news sources. It was not clear, however, who paid their return tickets.
This was not the first time where domestic aids from the middle eastern countries have returned home suffering from various types of hindrances and impediments. Some maids have committed suicide, while being abroad, by jumping from high condominiums not being there anyone to help or express their woes. It is also on record how those women who became pregnant, while working as domestic aids in middle eastern households, were sent home on a beeline to exonerate those responsible from blame. In certain cases, the dead bodies have arrived home in ramshackle coffins adding more shocks to the kith and kin. Most of the middle eastern employers appear to be heartless and boorish towards their domestic aids. This was confirmed by maids with serious burns; after they had been punished by their employers with
boiling water. A typical case that comes to one’s mind is how several domestic aids returned home with nails stuck embedded in their bodies.
Saudi Arabia beheaded Riana Nafeek in 2005, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, who was just a teenager of 17 years of age, but according to her false passport indicated she was 23! Her duties included washing, dusting, cleaning and helping to cook. Additionally, she was asked to undertake nanny’s duties for a four-month-old baby, with no experience
at all in childcare. Despite her denial of killing the infant and amidst wide condemnation by rights groups along with the Sri Lanka Government making the strongest appeals, the Saudi Interior Ministry confirmed that “ Ms Nafeek was executed for smothering the infant after an argument with the child’s mother in the town of al-Dwadmi’. This black mark remains indelible as the most brutal incident out of housemaid history.
Most Sri Lankan migrants (92%), both male and females, seek jobs in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar, absorbing over 80% of Sri Lanka’s workers. Other areas are Singapore and Malaysia etc. In the Gulf, the total number of male workers have increased over the years in comparison with female workers. There has been a consistent growth of domestic maids to the Middle East, over the years, compared with other countries. Statistics reveal that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia still remains as the main overseas labour market of Sri Lanka, and Qatar has become the main labour market for Sri Lankan males. Unskilled migrant worker remittances have undoubtedly contributed significantly to Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings, surpassing the traditional export income from Tea, Rubber and coconut.
Why do unskilled Sri Lankans go aboard as domestic aids and males go as ‘attendants’ to look after the geriatric men and women ( in Italy) particularly? It is mainly to alleviate their poverty-stricken lifestyles, with the sole ambition of earning extra money to upgrade their wretched livelihoods. Jobs that are locally available for unskilled labour are mostly poorly paid in Sri Lanka, particularly for women. The transnational domestic workers are able to earn an average wage a month, which is impossible to draw in a parallel with that of earnings in Sri Lanka. consistent mourning from those women who seek jobs outside Sri Lanka is that their families cannot make ends meet on their husbands’ income alone.
Despite the strong advisory for job agencies to send women ( particularly) through the SLBFE, salaries, there are numerous foreign employment agencies who advertise on TV with attractive salaries, which at times surpasses even some of the executive staff salaries in this country. Naturally, poor women become tempted to seek greener pastures by simply ignoring the risk factor involved, trying to make ends meet, by travelling to male-dominated Middle Eastern countries. However, it’s too late when they realise that life abroad as a maid is not a bed of
roses and having to work like beasts of burden, from morning till late hours in the night, with their sleep restricted to the bare minimum.
The housemaids, having gone through every hardship to earn their wages, and send money to their husbands but husbands are on record having neglected the children and becoming drunkards instead. When the cat is out of the bag, the disgruntled women put a halt to such remittances, and seek solace with other Asian immigrant workers. This is when the tragedy occurs and the smiles turn into pathetic tears; leaving the innocent children to pick up the pieces of their parents’ jigsaw puzzles.
There are no legal protections, or such facilities are highly limited to women workers especially in Cooperation Council Countries (GCC) where dominated labour laws do not protect domestic maids. Taking all these circumstances into account, it would be prudent to follow the undermentioned suggestions by the Government to put a stop to this quagmire
- All persons travelling abroad as migrant workers, particularly women must be registered with the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE).
- Prior to their date of departure, each worker should receive a copy of their Contract of Employment in quintuplicate, which should indicate the country, town, address and the name of the employer with his home and business telephone numbers; identifying the type of work one has to perform (with the number of family member in the prospective employers ) to avoid any repetition of the fate of Ms Nafeek. The job seekers’ passport number is vital to be mentioned in the contract of employment. It also should include the applicants’ local addresses and the wages per month clearly mentioned therein, with the due date of payment; and also mentioning who is responsible for airfares up and down ( especially in an emergency situation) along with the local police station, in case of an immigrant worker needs to complain of any harassment.
- This operation needs to be strictly and cautiously monitored either at immigration counters at airports or by assigning a special officer by the Sri Lanka Government, stationed at airports to meticulously examine passengers’ documentation ensuring that workers are in possession of a contract of employment.
- The relevant employment agency should provide a copy with the Contract of Employment (1) To the job seeker, (2) the SLBFE), (3) the relevant Embassy of the country where the job seeker will be employed, (4) the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and (5) retained with the agency for their records. In this manner, the Government should be able to
monitor the statistics of overseas workers to assist anyone in case of an emergency
- It would be equally and vitally important for the embassies to monitor all Sri Lankan immigrant workers in the host countries and to make regular contacts with the employer (a phone call in every fortnight will suffice ) to give the impression to the employer that the Sri Lankan Government, through its embassies, does monitor its citizens’ welfare! The employee also should have the telephone number of the embassy and the nearest police station in an emergency. In the event of any domestic aide is not permitted to use the employers’ home phone, the embassy officer’s regular telephone calls ( say once a fortnight) with the employer will get the message that the Government of Sri Lanka is monitoring the welfare of their overseas workers.
- There is no point in assigning overseas employees’ contracts of employment into a pigeonhole at Embassies, and in this respect, the Ambassador should be held responsible for such smooth operations, for the welfare of workers in foreign countries.
- There are TV advertisements to a greater extent with the sole aim of wooing women for interviews for various duties such as household work, governors, versatile cooks specialising in middle-eastern cuisine etc. with very attractive wages.
- Rather than sending maids out to foreign countries willy nilly, this area needs to be professionalised by the Sri Lanka Government in liaison with Sri Lanka’s Bureau of Foreign Employment in setting up adequate training centres to raise the required standards on a particular field with a basic knowledge of English as well. After all, it is the Government that is going to benefit with foreign exchange earnings out of the unskilled workers’ sweat and tears. This could be a way the only way of minimising the woes that so many domestic aides keep on complaining about. At present, although there are embassies to look after the welfare of Sri Lankan citizens, it is apparent that communication between the foreign missions and the employer is low, least of all with the employees. Besides, Sri Lankan migrant. workers visit the embassy only when they have to renew their passports or in the case when the police are involved. In general, expatriates visit an embassy to renew a passport or to obtain a one-way emergency passport.
Picture credit: Google photos