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Saturday Feature
Sri Lanka's distressed heroines

          IN a country like Sri Lanka, where the annual per capita income in 2004 was only US $1,025, the possibility of earning as much as US $1,400-1,600 per annum in overseas employment tempts many to become migrant workers.
According to the Migrant Services Centre (MSC), a local NGO, Sri Lanka's migrant workers remitted US $1,564 million in 2004, making them the country's second largest source of foreign exchange income.
The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment's June 2004 statistics estimate that as many as 900,000 Sri Lankan women are currently working abroad, mostly as domestic help. Migrant women workers remit money to supplement household income, build houses for their families, pay for their children's education and marriage and, on occasion, even start businesses of their own upon return to Sri Lanka. These women become role models, inspiring an increasing number of women to look for overseas employment.
In 2004, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), the state authority responsible for regulating and protecting migrant workers, registered over 143,000 women. As many as 90 per cent of these women were to be employed as domestic help, primarily in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
These statistics also lead us to ask about the scope of legal rights granted to migrant workers and the extent to which these rights are actually implemented. Sri Lanka and the Philippines are the leading Asian countries that provide migrant (primarily domestic) labour. Both countries have ratified the United Nations International Convention on Protection of Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families, which requires them to begin developing and enforcing local laws that will protect their migrant workers.
The Philippines has begun, only very gradually, to introduce such changes and, then too, only under much pressure from local women's rights groups. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is far from even beginning a dialogue on the topic.
According to SLBFE, in 2004, 123 women migrant workers died while in employment abroad, although it could not indicate how many of these deaths were due to accidents or incidents of assault. The violent mistreatment of women migrant workers is an ugly reality that Sri Lanka is yet to grapple with effectively. Domestic workers are among the most vulnerable group in any country's labour force, and their exploitation is worsened when they are migrant workers abroad, as H Sujeewa Kumari's story illustrates.
Kumari, 34, a veteran migrant domestic worker, had worked for several years in Saudi Arabia. In December 2004, she took up employment as a housemaid in Kuwait for a higher salary than she had previously earned in Saudi Arabia. But more money meant longer working hours, more gruelling work and an employer who beat her. In April 2005, her employer flung a heavy saucepan at Kumari, which struck her back and severely damaged two nerves. Two days passed before she managed to make a secret phone call to another Sri Lankan housemaid in the same apartment complex. Kumari was taken to hospital by the other maid's employers.
Once released from hospital, and still in debilitating pain, Kumari went to the shelter operated by the Sri Lankan Embassy in Kuwait, and had to wait almost four weeks until expatriate Sri Lankans raised enough money for her return ticket home. Once home, Kumari realised she was ineligible to claim compensation under SLBFE's much-touted insurance policy because that policy required assault claims to be filed within three months from the start of employment.
Migrant workers are estimated to make up 17 per cent of Sri Lanka's labour force, but they are not recognised as a separate labour group. According to David De Soysa, Director of MSC, "Migrant workers are lumped together with a multitude of others to form the 'informal labour sector'." This lack of recognition means that migrant workers -- almost 75 per cent of them women -- cannot receive any special rights, privileges or concessions. The lack of bilateral agreements between countries that export and import migrant labour leaves migrant workers with no protection in either their home country or that of employment.
"Migrant workers have no political rights. This is a fundamental right of all citizens of Sri Lanka," says De Soysa. In 2004, Philippine migrant workers were given the Opportunity to vote in the country's presidential election for the first time. "But Sri Lanka is not even willing to consider the option of offshore voting," says De Soysa, pointing out years of unsuccessful NGO lobbying around this issue.
On the rare occasion when the government begins to address the issue at the national level, it turns out to be empty rhetoric. In his annual budget speech of 2001, the then Deputy Finance Minister referred to migrant women workers as the "heroines of Sri Lanka" and announced a special pension scheme for them. The scheme is yet to be implemented.
Local NGOs, who felt that Sri Lanka's domestic workers were poorly prepared to work overseas, lobbied SLBFE to provide a framework for regulated training. In 1997, SLBFE began a special training course for employment in Middle Eastern countries (12 days) and non-Middle Eastern countries, such as Hong Kong and Singapore (21 days). This training is offered free of charge to all domestic workers who register with SLBFE prior to departure.
"The training covers everything, from preparing their families for their departure and absence to how to operate kitchen equipment," says MGM Shamali, Officer-in-Charge of one of SLBFE's 27 Training Centres. "The women come for training with little knowledge of what awaits them," he continues. "We need to teach them even the basics, such as personal hygiene." Language training (Arabic for the Middle Eastern migrants; English for the others), local culture and negotiating skills are among the other vital skills taught.
K Lakshani Nissansala, 21, is one of the students in the Middle Eastern training group. The single mother of a four-year-old, Nissansala is planning to go to Dubai as a domestic worker. "I have been working as a factory worker for the past three years but I don't earn enough to save anything. I want to work [abroad] for a few years, save some money. I must do well for my daughter," she says.
The stars in Nissansala's eyes and the tears in Kumari's are both realities of a Sri Lankan migrant woman worker's life. Each time she leaves for employment abroad, a migrant worker must weigh the prospect of desperately-needed financial success against her lack of legal rights at home and abroad.
ŚNews Network


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