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LABOUR-SRI LANKA: Domestic Workers Promised New Deal in Kuwait

Feizal Samath*

COLOMBO, May 15 2008 (IPS) - Will a new agreement between licensed labour recruiters in Sri Lanka and Kuwait protect the rights of domestic workers who face serious abuse in the Gulf state?

No, says one of Sri Lanka’s biggest groups working for the welfare of migrant workers which pins responsibility on shadowy sub-agents who enlist thousands of women every year as foreign domestic workers.

Viola Perera, coordinator for the Action Network for Migrant Workers (ACTFORM), says "as long as they (fly-by-night agents) are not held accountable or in some cases cannot be traced, the problem will continue."

Two associations of registered labour agents – Sri Lankan Manpower Welfare Association of Kuwait (SLMWAK) and Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies in Sri Lanka (ALFEA) – signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in mid-April promising to "devise a method to look after the safety and welfare of migrant workers."

Zain Milhan, president of SLMWAK, pointed out the problems were chiefly because the women are not trained. "Kitchen equipment is highly computerised and often maids are penalised by wage cuts for pressing the wrong button which creates problems," he observed urging agents to ensure proper selection of workers.

An estimated 70 percent of the 1.5 million Sri Lankan migrants in the Gulf states and Lebanon are unskilled women working in homes. For Sri Lanka, remittances are the biggest source of foreign exchange after garment exports. However, foreign domestic workers in the Gulf are outside the mainstream labour, social and health protection laws and policies. They are confined to the house, denied a weekly day off, standard working hours, compensation for workplace injury and a minimum wage.

A lack of legal protection leads to numerous human rights violations like sexual abuse, assault and torture. The international rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch, has called on both labour exporting and importing countries to protect domestic workers’ rights.

The Sri Lankan government has threatened to stop unskilled women from going abroad because of threats to their safety and the social implications of female migration. ACTFORM’s Perera relates the case of a village of 400 households in northeast Polonnaruwa district where one member in every family was a foreign domestic worker.

"They had all been recruited by a sub-agent who has taken sums from anything between 30,000 rupees (280 dollars) to 150,000 rupees (1,390 dollars) promising them jobs," she told IPS.

Sri Lankan authorities have control over only registered agents who can lose their license and face other penalties for contract violations. "Most problems will be solved if all agents are registered and held accountable," she reaffirms.

A ban on unskilled women seeking employment abroad would be an infringement of their constitutional right to travel, she said. "The government must then provide jobs here to the tens of thousands who work overseas," Perera asserted.

A Catholic nun who has worked for years with migrant workers shares ACTFORM’s views on sub-agents. She talked to IPS at length, but did not want to be identified. She estimates there are some 20,000 unregistered agents spread out in villages across the country who offer jobs for woman.

"There is no control over them. They are not accountable. They go around picking up the most vulnerable ones," she said adding that Kinniya village in eastern Sri Lanka was now their hunting ground for underage girls.

The village, like many others in the region, has been impoverished by the long-running ethnic war between the government and Tamil rebels.

Kinniya is also home for Rizana Nafeek, a 20-year-old migrant worker, on death row in Saudi Arabia for allegedly 'intentionally' killing her employer’s four-month-old infant. Nafeek was just 17when she was first sent to the Gulf by a sub-agent who got around the age hurdle for recruitment by making her older than she was.

According to the nun, registered agents, mostly based in Colombo, depend on sub-agents for the supply of workers. "I’ve never heard them complain about the quality of workers as there is always a shortage of labour to meet the demand overseas," she said.

The MoU between the two associations includes the provision of a "unified" contract for domestic workers – based on the laws in Kuwait and the Sri Lanka Employment Bureau Act. All job orders will be authenticated by the Kuwait-based SLMWAK before the Kuwait agent submits the application to the Kuwait embassy.

The Sri Lankan recruiting office meanwhile will interview the domestic worker who has to appear in person befor her bio-details are sent to Kuwait. It is also their responsibility to ensure that she is physically and medically fit.

Agents in Kuwait and Sri Lanka are promising Sri Lankan domestic workers a new deal in the oil-rich state. But just whose interests they are safeguarding is not clear.

(*This story replaces the one titled ‘New Deal For Sri Lankan Domestic Help’ datelined Kuwait and released on Apr. 28, 2008)

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