By Sqn. Ldr. J.T. Rex Fernando
With monotonous regularity there are reports in the newspapers of blatant harassment, exploitation and deprivation of legitimate dues of our migrant workers in the Middle East . The most recent cases of torturing of housemaids with nails have been shocking. The following are some of the recent news paper reports of harassment and torture of our migrant workers.
X “Sri Lankan maids suffer abuse in the Middle East .”
X “Domestic helpers still subject to abuse.”
X “Housemaid thrashed in Reynard.”
X “Housemaid abused by the Employer.”
X “Sri Lankan maids among the most tortured workers in the world.”
X “100 Lankan migrant workers stranded to be brought back from Saudi.”
X “ Ten Sri Lankan forcible detained by employer”
X “Doctor confirms housemaid tortured in Kuwait ”
According to news reports and the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment., the government received 2,000 reports on foreign employers abusing maids in 2003. According to the same report, 123 Sri Lankan women had died in 2003 while working abroad. The government had classified 45 of the cases as ‘Unnatural Deaths’. In other words those deaths are apparently murders. While the latest statistics are not available, this is an alarming rate of violence against Sri Lankan women in some Middle East countries. It is true that those countries help Sri Lanka by providing employment opportunities our men and women but there should be some effective mechanism to ensure the safety of Sri Lankan housemaids employed abroad. The government has to take some meaningfull action to protect Sri Lankan women working abroad.
Need for an effective mechanism
The frequency of cases of harassment and exploitation of migrant workers, particularly female workers necessitate the setting in motion of a meaningful and effective mechanism to rationalize the recruitment of Sri Lankan workers, and registration and control of employment agencies. Considering the numerous problems encountered by our migrant workers, the need to expeditiously initiate suitable action to tackle these intricate problems cannot be over - emphasized.
While after every case of harassment, torture, deprivation of wages is reported the bureau of foreign employment assures that action is pursued to prevent such recurrence, regrettably no effective action is pursued.
The magnitude of the problem of migrant workers, and the unenviable predicament particularly of workers in Arab lands can only be adequately appreciated and understood by those who have served in the Middle East , and have had an insight into the working conditions of our migrant workers. Serving in a Middle East country for nearly a decade in the capacity of Chief Administrative Officer in a government establishment, and having travelled widely in the Gulf, I am aware how some private sector employers and employment agencies dupe expatriate workers by ingenious subtle and insidious ways. I am also aware of the many instances of physical and sexual harassment, deprivation of wages, and also the nonchalant attitude adopted by employment agencies and our foreign missions when migrant workers are faced with problems.
The governments of Gulf countries including Kuwait , the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia , as well as Lebanon have over, the years, failed to curb abuse against Sri Lankan domestic workers. The New York based Human Rights Watch in a recent report has stated that domestic helpers, typically labour for 16 to 21 hours for extremely low wages of 15 to 30 US cents an hour. “Some domestic workers had told Human Rights Watch how they were subjected to forced confinement, food deprivation, physical and verbal abuse, forced labour, and sexual harassment and rape by their employers,” it said. More than 660,000 Sri Lankan women work abroad as domestic workers, nearly 90 per cent in Kuwait , Saudi Arabia , the UAE and Lebanon , according to HRW. The government in the Gulf exposes Sri Lankan domestic workers to abuse by refusing to guarantee a weekly rest day, limits to the work day, freedom of movement and other rights that most workers take for granted. It is an undisputable fact that too many employers and unscrupulous labour agencies get away with exploitating workers without real punishment.
Considering the magnitude of the problem, it is necessary to expeditiously rationalize recruiting procedures to provide for effective and meaningful control of employment agencies. The following are salient aspects that should to be considered.
(A) The Labour Charter intended to protect the rights of workers has to consider the outcry of Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East . Their rights have to be accurately safeguarded.
(B) The insidious, dubious and ingenious ways, employment agencies circumvent existing laws and dupe those seeking employment abroad. Even some reputed employment agencies seem to continue unabated to discretely flout even basic procedures.
(C) The rather ineffective role of the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment which is sopposedly the “Protector of Migrant Workers”.
(D) The nonchalant attitude of foreign missions to the problems of workers abroad. It is regrettable that until now, the pitiful conditions of most of our workers in the Middle East have been of little concern despite remittances to the national coffers exceeding Rs. 40 billion annually.
In the pursuance of the efforts to provide for better terms and conditions, an effective recruitment policy in respect of Sri Lankans going abroad for employment hoping for a better tomorrow, the following aspects should also be given careful consideration and should be effectively covered, and deterrent action pursued particularly against dubious labour agencies.
(1) The Bureau of Foreign Employment must be geared to perform a more meaningful and effective role as the “Protector of Migrant Workers”. It should be given the “muscle” to assert itself and be able to prevent or at least minimize the exploitation of our workers.
(2) The activities and modus operandi of employment agencies must be carefully monitored. There should be effective machinery to prevent the duping of applicants for employment abroad and the extraction of prohibitive and unconscionable commissions. All foreign employment agencies without exception should come under the purview of the Bureau of Foreign Employment.
(3) Formulation of a code of conduct/ethics for employment agencies should be given consideration and licensing of these agencies should be on the basis of their credentials, suitability and competence.
(4) The responsibilities of employment agencies should be carefully laid down. It is well-known that most agencies are only concerned about the interests of foreign employers/principals. Invariably the interests of workers are subjugated to the interest of the employer.
(5) The contracts of employment should be carefully scrutinized and the Bureau must guide and advice those seeking employment about the mandatory safeguards and precautions, since:-
(i) Some contracts are “one sided” and there is no employer/employee reciprocal obligations.
(ii) Some are in Arabic and the workers required to sign the contracts either before departure or on arrival to take up the appointment.
(iii) Despite the stipulations in the contracts, provision is invariably made for the “Sharia Law” to override the provisions in the contract of employment.
(iv) There should be adequate safeguards against unilateral repudiation of the contracts of employment. Very often after signing the formal contract of employment or on arrival to take up the appointment, the terms and conditions of employment are altered. Such cases are on the increase and the Bureau has been inundated with such cases of blatant repudiation of the contracts.
(v) Need to re-negotiate worker agreements with explicit employer obligations with the host countries with bad reputation. The countries to which our workers are send respect the Human Rights of workers and the relevant ILO conventions.
(vi) In the event of a breach of the contract, by non payment of wages, withdrawal of facilities and allowances agreed upon, change of status and duties and adverse working conditions, the procedure for redress must be clearly set out.
(vii) A suitable body must be instituted to arbitrate and settle disputes arising from the failure of employers and employment agencies to fulfill the contractual obligations. Regrettably our missions abroad have not been able to be of any meaningful assistance.
(viii) It may be helpful if an in-depth study is made of the numerous cases of our workers who have encountered various problems such as non payment of wages, unilateral change of conditions of employment, and cases of physical and sexual harassment.
A more meaningful and effective control of the recruitment of Sri Lankans for employment in the Middle East is a pressing national and humanitarian necessity.
Unless the role of the Bureau of Foreign Employment as the protector of migrant workers is made more effective and assertive and the activities of employment agencies are closely monitored and regulated and our foreign missions abroad show more concern for the travails and tribulations of our workers, no significant and meaningful change will result.