Monday, January 17, 2011

Look after our Middle East earners NOW

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 ”

Dismal record

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.

Precautionary measures

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.

Skinned Alive

Sunday Leader - January 16, 2011
By Ranee Mohamed

She can neither sit, nor stand. She can neither sleep or straighten. As she squirms in pain, more painful is the memory of a torture of a lifetime that Sri Lankan housemaid Ana Ummu Fanoon (39) alleges that she underwent in the house where she was employed for eight months in Saudi Arabia .
Hamdu Thaslim of Ambana, Na-Ula, did not have a steady job. It was his work in the nearby quarry, breaking stones, that helped feed his wife and five children. Though partly disabled, with a hand and a leg giving him constant trouble, he had no alternative but to limp his way to the quarry and hammer the hard stones till they broke into smithereens.
These harsh conditions coupled with the gnawing hunger made his wife Ana Ummu Fanoon (39) seek employment in Saudi Arabia .
“We were concerned about our only daughter. Someday we had to give her in marriage and a dowry had to be found. With hardly any money to eat, finding a dowry was an impossibility,” said Thaslim, speaking to The Sunday Leader. To make the mirage of a handsome dowry come true, Ummu Fanoon took the bold step to leave her five children behind and take wing to Saudi Arabia on March 24, 2010.
“It was a brother of mind who took us to an employment agency in Kurunegala. It broke my heart to see my wife go away. Our youngest son is two years old and he did not stop crying,” recalled Thaslim.
For one month there was silence from Fanoon and a little money was sent. “In the second month there was a telephone call from her. She whispered desperately that they were ill treating her and not paying her. She said that she was not allowed to even touch the telephone. She begged me to get her back. I was desperate and went to the employment agency but the only answer I got was ‘we will see what we can do.’ Each time I got a telephone call I went to the agency. My wife told me that she was forbidden to touch the telephone,” said Thaslim.
In the first week of January, Thaslim had been surprised to find his wife standing near the front of their house. “At first I could not recognise her. Her face seemed distorted and there were blood patches below her eyes. Her eyes were red and I could see that there was blood in them,” said Thaslim who found that his wife could not walk. She had to be carried into the house where she had reportedly collapsed with exhaustion and pain.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Fanoon said that her time in Saudi was miserable and unforgettable. “They hardly gave me anything to eat. When the work was done I was locked away in a dark room. I had to eat out of the garbage can. But I had to do all the work in the house and look after the children too. The children were very naughty and uncontrollable. I was looking after the child when the child fell down. I ran out of the house and all the way to the police station in fear. However the police handed me back to the house. I underwent the most traumatic experience in my life back in the house. They asked me to keep my hands on the floor and they hit them with a pole. Then they heated spoons from the electric cooker and put them on my body. They lashed me with a belt. They said they were going to skin me alive and took the skin out of my back with repeated lashings which seemed to last forever. The skin of my whole back up to the hips was taken away. Then they hit me with a chair. This shot on the back made me lose balance and I fell down and knocked my face. Then they pulled my hair out – about three or five strands at a time,” alleged Fanoon, showing bare and knotty patches in her head.
With some of her teeth broken and missing, Fanoon could not bear the agony and could not stop herself from wailing in pain. “They did not like the moaning. The master of the house made a ticket for me and dropped me at the airport and I found my way to Sri Lanka ,” said Fanoon.
Ana Fanoon Umma was admitted to the Na-Ula Hospital on January 8 at 3.30 p.m. At 10 p.m. she was transferred to the Matale Hospital . Fanoon has made an entry at the Na-Ula Police regarding her experience.
Today she sits around her home at Nayakanatte in Ambana. Her children sit around her. “They tell her that they are hungry, but there is nothing she can do for them now,” said Thaslim sadly.
They seemed to have got their mother back, but lost her in the process. In addition to the family not having a steady income, they now have a patient at home.
Fanoon cannot cook, wash and take care of her children any longer. She sits in a corner moaning in pain – waiting for the skin in her back to grow and for the heaviness in her head to get lighter. It will take a long time for her fractures to heal, but for justice to come her way will take longer.

“Cannot Understand”

When The Sunday Leader telephoned the house in which Fanoon worked and asked them their side of the story as regards the allegations made by Fanoon, the master of the house listened to the allegations and said “No speak English.” When the question was repeated the answer remained the same as the line disconnected.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lankan maid rape accused acquitted

Sunday, 02 January 2011 11:40

The Kuwait Criminal Court acquitted a resident accused of sexually assaulting his Sri Lankan housemaid. The case file indicates the maid was hired from a domestic recruitment agency, and the suspect had gone with his wife to buy clothing and asked the maid to wear them.

The housemaid claimed she refused to put the clothes on, and she went into her room but the man followed her into the room, tore her clothes and raped her. Later, the suspect reportedly sent her back to the recruitment agency to terminate her service.

The maid said she couldn’t report the case to the secretary at the recruitment agency because she was afraid, and she reported it to the Sri Lankan embassy. The lawyer of the suspect Faisal Al-Otaibi argued there were lots of unsolved puzzles in the maid’s account, which points to the fact that the case was fabricated.

He stressed the suspect’s wife had requested the maid should be sent back to the agency because she couldn’t communicate with her. (Arab Times)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Maid shows wounds to judge in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: An Indonesian house maid who has accused her female Saudi employer of stabbing, beating and burning her appeared in court for the first time yesterday and showed her wounds, an Indonesian official said.
Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, 23, “showed the judge her injuries, especially her head,” said Diddi Wahyudi, an Indonesian consular official in Jeddah.
The Saudi woman was arrested after allegedly beating Sumiati so severely as to break bones and cause internal bleeding, putting a hot iron to her head and stabbing and slashing her with scissors.
During the hearing, the woman “denied everything, saying that the maid has beaten herself,” Wahyudi said by telephone.
• The Peninsula Newspaper

43 migrants drown off Yemen coast

ADEN: At least 43 African migrants trying to reach Yemen by boat have drowned in heavy seas off the coast, and a second boat with up to 40 Ethiopians aboard is missing, Yemen’s Interior Ministry
said yesterday.
The ministry website said three Somalis were rescued after a vessel carrying 46 people, mostly from Ethiopia, capsized, and a second boat carrying Ethiopians was missing.

• The Peninsula Newspaper

Monday, January 3, 2011

Deserted workers to fly home

Khaleej Times Online > NATION
Ismail Sebugwaawo

4 January 2011
RAS AL KHAIMAH - After spending months in harsh conditions without proper food and, sometimes, with no electricity and water in their accommodation units, around 150 Indian employees will finally be sent home this week.
These workers, who also include a few skilled employees, have been working for Anvem FZC — a ventilator fabrication and carpentry company located in Jazeera Al Hamra area of Ras Al Khaimah.
They said their company stopped operating more than two months ago after their Indian employer, Viswa Pradad Reddy, allegedly absconded from the country.
Reddy allegedly had seven companies in the UAE, including two companies in Ras Al Khaimah and five in Sharjah, but all have stopped operations.
The workers have been living in harsh conditions after their employer stopped giving them salaries for the past five to six months.
The Indians have been surviving on help from good-hearted people and friends and, sometimes, receiving food and money to buy diesel for the generator at their accommodation from Indian community organisations.
S. Prasad, social and welfare convener of Sevanam UAE, an Indian community organisation, said he got information about the situation of these workers from a friend two months ago. He visited them. “The workers told me that since the closure of their company, they had no means of survival because they have not received salaries for the last five months. They were not able to get food and other basic necessities,” he said.
Sevanam started providing assistance to them. “I also informed my friends about the situation of these people and some of them provided them with food, water and other basic necessities, including fuel for the generator which provides electricity at their accommodation units,” he said.
On many days, the workers had to prepare food using wood because they did not have money to buy cooking gas.
After managing for months without their salaries, the workers lodged a complaint against their employer with the Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority (RAKIA) Free Trade Zone, where the company had been registered. RAKIA investigated the matter and ordered the owner to resolve the salary issue.
“One day, we received information that our employer had absconded and the machinery in his other factories were missing. That was the day our factory stopped operating,” said Mallesh Nakkadasir.
Some workers said after their company stopped its operations, the owners of the accommodation units asked them vacate.
“Some people came here ordering us to vacate the accommodation but we refused as we did not have anywhere else to go and our salaries had not been paid yet. Water and electricity supplies were disconnected from the accommodation and the situation has been really difficult,” said T. N. Reddy, a 38-year-old worker.
“Our employer must have planned his escape. He had fabrication companies in the UAE but he transferred all machinery from the other factories gradually. We do not know where he took these machines to. It is only in the Jazeera Al Hamra factory that the machines remained,” said 44-year-old Vijay Kumar.
He noted that their boss had also transferred all workers from other factories in the UAE and kept them in the accommodation units at the Jazeera Al Hamra where they have spent more than four months.
Ayyappan, 36, who had worked with the company for the last two years, said, “My monthly salary was Dh800 but I have spent five months without my salary. The situation has been difficult — no food, no medical services and other facilities. I have a wife and two children but I could not send them any money,” he added.
According to Prasad and some of the workers, RAKIA has seized the machinery on the factory premises and has provided all workers with flight tickets to India in addition to paying them two months’ basic salaries.
Thirty of the workers have been referred to the Public Prosecution after the authorities found that their visas had expired. It was also found out that the employer had not stamped visas in the passports of some of these workers. It is only after getting court clearance that these people will be sent home, said Prasad.
Sixty of the workers left for India on Sunday evening and the remaining workers are expected to leave the UAE during this week.
Officials of RAKIA were not available for comments.

India proposes hike in minimum wages for its workers

(Sajila Saseendran)

4 January 2011
DUBAI - In a move to ensure better welfare of its expatriate workforce, India has proposed a revision of minimum monthly wages for various categories of its workers employed in the UAE, Khaleej Times has learnt.
The Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi has also proposed to categorise the positions occupied by the Indian workers so as to have clarity on the new wage structure which the mission wants to implement early this year. Apart from the wages, the mission also wants to make sure that unskilled and semi-skilled workers are provided with food and accommodation by their employers.
The proposal to revise the minimum wages of Indian workers, mainly the unskilled and semi-skilled ones, comes almost three decades after the existing wages ranging from Dh600 to Dh750 were set as mandatory requirements for securing Indian missions’ attestation for recruitment process.
Confirming the move, Indian Ambassador to the UAE M.K. Lokesh told Khaleej Times that the officials from the Embassy and the Indian Consulate in Dubai were in discussion with employers and employees from different sectors to gather proper data and finalise “reference rates” for minimum wages.

India proposes hike in minimum wages for its workers in UAE
“We are also consulting other embassies and the local authorities in the UAE, especially the Ministry of Labour (MoL). Once we finalise the minimum wages after getting the feedback from all stakeholders, it will have to be implemented when the proposed web-based attestation procedure (WAP) for Indian workers comes into effect. Only then, we will be able to holistically monitor what is offered and what is actually given to workers,” he said.
Once the new rules are implemented, he said, the Indian missions here will not provide attestation for job contracts that do not meet the new wages and benefits. The missions’ attestation is required in the case of group recruitment of unskilled workers from India and when those recruited, even if skilled, have an Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) stamp on their passports.
To obtain the attestation, employers are required to submit a proposal of wages to the diplomatic missions here which should not go below the wages and minimum working and living conditions prescribed by the missions.
Dr K. Elangovan, Counsellor (Community Affairs), said the Embassy wanted to fix the new salaries after studying the wages proposed by employers to the missions and actual wages settled between employers and employees after the contract is made.
“We would like to raise the lower bar because we realised that the root cause of all the problems with workers is a lack of money since the cost of living has gone up. Moreover, the wages in India itself have increased whereas the minimum wages here have not been revised for many years, making it a strong case for review. Our efforts are to consult the stakeholders and then arrive at realistic reference wages,” said Dr Elangovan.
The ambassador said the diplomatic missions so far did not have a medium to know what was actually being paid for the workers. “When the WAP system comes into effect, the system will automatically block applications for attestation if the salaries specified for the workers do not match with what are offered to them,” he said.
He pointed out that the ambitious project can serve the purpose only when the WAP network is linked to the database of the immigration authority in India and that of the labour ministry in the UAE.
In 2008, the Govt of India fixed a minimum wage for its female household service workers in the UAE at Dh1,100 ($300) per month. Besides food and accommodation, a cash deposit of Dhs9, 200, return airfare and a mobile phone were also made mandatory for recruiting Indian maids. It is learnt that these conditions, which helped in drastically reducing complaints by housemaids, will remain unchanged when new minimum wages will be set as housemaids are not governed under the labour laws of the UAE.

Lankan maid rape accused acquitted

Sunday, 02 January 2011 11:40

The Kuwait Criminal Court acquitted a resident accused of sexually assaulting his Sri Lankan housemaid. The case file indicates the maid was hired from a domestic recruitment agency, and the suspect had gone with his wife to buy clothing and asked the maid to wear them.

The housemaid claimed she refused to put the clothes on, and she went into her room but the man followed her into the room, tore her clothes and raped her. Later, the suspect reportedly sent her back to the recruitment agency to terminate her service.

The maid said she couldn’t report the case to the secretary at the recruitment agency because she was afraid, and she reported it to the Sri Lankan embassy. The lawyer of the suspect Faisal Al-Otaibi argued there were lots of unsolved puzzles in the maid’s account, which points to the fact that the case was fabricated.

He stressed the suspect’s wife had requested the maid should be sent back to the agency because she couldn’t communicate with her. (Arab Times)