By Womens Feature Service
Colombo (Women's Feature Service) - Shanti Murugaya, 19, was excited about becoming an earning member of her family. She had always dreamt of being the breadwinner so that her ailing father wouldn't have to work. However, Shanti's father was anxious: he had heard harrowing tales of Sri Lankan women who had gone to the Middle East to work as housemaids. Yet, as Shanti was adamant, he relented on the condition that she would call home once a week.
When his daughter made her first phone call from Jordan, Murugaya knew something was amiss. Two months later, the family received a message from the Sri Lankan Consulate in Jordan, and were informed by the Prevention and Security Department in Amman, stating that Shanti had fallen off the fourth floor of her employer's house and had succumbed to her injuries. The shocked family was left grappling with questions: had Shanti been raped and killed or had she committed suicide? The Sri Lankan Embassy in Jordan is still awaiting the result of the autopsy to get some answers.
Shanti is one of the hundreds of eager women who dream of overcoming poverty by earning petrodollars in the Gulf countries. Rizana Nafeek, 17, misappropriated facts to falsify her age only to appear old enough to work as a nanny in the Gulf. During her employment interview in 2004 she told the authorities that she was in her 30s, as 30 is the minimum age for employment as a nanny. Though she was hired as a housemaid, Rizana was later asked to care of a baby, too. Ignorant of baby care, she mishandled the baby and the infant choked and died. She was arrested and has been sentenced to death. 'Human Rights Watch' (HRW) has taken up the case along with the Sri Lankan authorities and it is being tried in Saudi Arabia. The latest is that the baby's father has pardoned Rizana so she might escape capital punishment.
Dr Keheliya Rambukwella, Sri Lanka's Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, says, housemaids should not be given the job of a nanny, as they are not trained to care of babies. Rambukwella also says that the Sri Lankan government is looking into the possibilities of employment prospects in countries such as Norway, Poland, Italy and even Japan, where a more systematic mode of remuneration is possible. "Some housemaids in the Gulf are forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day and don't get a day off. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the government are in the process of drafting proposals to change this," says the minister.
A media officer at the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) reveals that there are 1.5 million migrant workers from Sri Lanka in the Middle East and non-Middle East (Cyprus, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong). In 2007, 52.77 per cent women went as migrant workers. Housemaids, nannies and babysitters fall into the category of the Domestic Sector and last year, 102,176 women went abroad to work in this sector. Of the housemaids who went, 18,446 were between the age of 25 and 29 years and 18,426 were between 35 and 39 years. On an average,their salary is 45 Kuwaiti Dinars (US$1=KWD 0.27). Most of these women have little education and are housewives so they do not earn if they remain in Sri Lanka.
As per SLBFE, there are 1.4 million Sri Lankan workers in the Gulf, 60 per cent are housemaids and 65 per cent female. "Of these, 15 per cent complain of physical and sexual harassment while 18 per cent complain of non-payment of agreed wages. Twenty per cent complain of lack of communication between employer and employee," said the SLBFE media officer.
"...In 2007, we received 1,273 complaints of sexual and physical harassment. Our policy is to contact the Embassy and send for a report to the 'Haamputha's' (sponsor's) house. We also contact the local agent. If they don't respond, we cancel the licence of the local agent," explained the officer.
Talking about the efforts of the SLBFE, the media officer said, "We give compensation in the case of death or permanent disability during the period of registration. We pay LKR 300,000 (US$1=LKR 110.05) for permanent disability and LKR 500,000 in case of death. Death can be due to homicide, accident or, as in most cases, due to natural causes. We have also built a house in Polonnaruwa, in the North Central part of Sri Lanka, for a housemaid whose legs were cut off."
Even as Kingsley Ranawake, Chairman, SLBFE, assures of prompt action and assistance to victims and their families; and even as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) implements awareness programmes for civil society and capacity building for law enforcement officers to help prosecute offenders in cases of trafficking, most migrant workers find it difficult to avail of the benefits. The reason being, those who have encountered serious problems had migrated through illegal channels.
According to 'Case Studies of Temporary Labour Migration of Women in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka', "A well-organised illegal network of unscrupulous agents, operating in both Sri Lanka and the host country, takes advantage of loopholes in the system... to organise illegal migration of workers with forged documentation. Workers unregistered with the SLBFE forfeit benefits of services, such as insurance, in the event of accident, death or non-completion of contract. Migrants who have little or no education run into problems more often, as they are more likely to lack the ability to access and process information and acquire or benefit from training."
Housemaids are extremely vulnerable to abuse since they live inside homes and often have to work long hours with insufficient food and rest. According to HRW (November 2007), "Of the 100 female domestic workers interviewed, 20 said that they had experienced physical abuse by their employers or their employers' children. Many experienced psychological abuse, including verbal abuse... the physical abuse included beatings, deliberate burning with hot irons, kicking, slapping and hair-pulling. Domestic workers said that their employers had beaten them with slippers, rubber hoses, a vacuum cleaner, basins, wires, chairs, wooden planks, broomsticks, knives, an iron bar and in one case, a cane. At the time of the interview, several women bore the scars of this abuse; burns, scars, a cast, shorn hair..."
The HRW document also states, "Of the 100 women interviewed, 13 reported sexual harassment or assault by their employer or employer's sons. Of these, five had been raped and three became pregnant, as a consequence. The actual number of Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers who are sexually harassed or assaulted is not known, but it is clear that it is vastly underreported due not only to the stigma and shame attached to such abuse, but also because of the fear of countercharges by employers... and the lack of accessible complaint mechanisms."
Unfortunately, because crimes of sexual violence often take place in private settings, the only evidence before courts often consists of the differing accounts given by a male national employer and a foreign female employee, with the former generally given the benefit of the doubt.Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the http://www.wfsnews.org/ website.