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SRI LANKA: Anger Rises Over Torture Case, But Solution Unclear

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Sep 2 2010 (IPS) - The ordeal of a Sri Lankan domestic worker whose Saudi Arabian employer allegedly drove nails and metal wires into her body has sent alarm bells ringing among government officials and activists, but how such abuses can be stopped remain far from clear.

“This is a bit of a problem. Maybe we need to look at some new protective measures,” said Mangala Randeniya, deputy general manager at the state-owned Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), which looks after the overseas deployment of this South Asian island nation’s workers.

The widely reported case of 50-year-old L P D Ariyawathi, who returned to Sri Lanka on Aug. 21 with 20 nails and metal wires in her body, has triggered protests outside the Saudi Arabian embassy here.

After President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered a full investigation into the Ariyawathi case, SLBFE officials flew to Riyadh on Aug. 30 to persuade Saudi authorities to take action against the employer and discuss issues facing migrant workers.

This latest case may be the most bizarre thus far, but it is not the first and will not be last, given that this South Asian island nation has 1.5 million overseas workers, of whom 1.2 million work in Saudi Arabia. Majority of them are women working in private homes as domestic workers.

But Lakshan Dias, a lawyer who is chairman of the Colombo- based South Asian Network for Refugees, IDPs and Migrant Workers, says Ariyawathi’s plight provides a opportunity for the Sri Lankan government to step up pressure on labour- receiving countries to fulfill international conventions against torture and others respecting the rights of migrant workers.

Saudi Arabia has signed the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention against Torture but with some reservations, he says.

“Putting pressure on governments won’t necessarily mean we will lose markets,” he said, arguing that recently the SLBFE banned the deployment of Sri Lankan domestic workers in Jordan because agents there were paying less than the prescribed minimum wage of 200 U.S. dollars per month.

But while Sri Lanka has bilateral agreements on migrant labour with Kuwait and Jordan, it does not have one with Saudi Arabia.

Likewise, Sri Lanka, like many other labour-exporting countries, has signed the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families. But many labour-receiving nations, like Saudi Arabia, have not signed it.

With little certainty over how justice can be obtained in Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka’s bureau of foreign employment has taken the responsibility of compensating Ariyawathi with a house and cash. It says it plans to fly her to Saudi Arabia in case her presence is required for an investigation there.

Nimalka Fernando, a women’s rights activist and spokeswoman for the Colombo-based Women’s Alliance for Peace and Democracy, says the government drags its feet over the protection of domestic workers, which the country has been exporting for three decades.

“Sri Lankan domestic workers are getting harassed almost daily in some part of the world but our officials are slow in responding,” she said. “It was horrifying that the Foreign Minister G L Peiris met the Saudi ambassador in Colombo to register a complaint in the Ariyawathi case only on Tuesday (Aug. 31), almost 10 days after the victim returned and the storywas splashed all over the newspapers.”

She said rights groups plan to file a complaint with the U.N. Expert Group on Migrant Workers in Geneva on the torture of Ariyawathi. “We are also canvassing for all labour- receiving countries where Sri Lankans work to ratify the ILO Convention Against Torture and enforce it,” she added.

But Dias says that what happens to efforts to seek legal address in Saudi Arabia, where this is first case of abuse of this kind for Sri Lanka, is up in the air. If the courts move and issue a ruling in favour of the migrant worker, it could be precedent case for the future.

He adds that judicial intervention – getting a ruling and policy from the courts – might be more effective than working through existing laws.

For instance, Dias has filed a fundamental rights petition in Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court on behalf of a Sri Lankan worker who was duped into signing a second contract with a job agent, one where the job designation was changed from the original contract and the salary reduced. This worker returned to Sri Lanka a few months after arriving in Qatar, where he had been forced to work as a labourer although he was a skilled plumber, and then fell ill.

The victim is demanding not only compensation but a ruling from the court that the government should have a compensation formula for all workers in distress.

Ariyawathi’s case has drawn as much attention as much as what happened to Rizana Nafeek, the underage domestic worker who was trafficked into Saudi Arabia and sentenced to death on Jun. 16, 2007 for the alleged murder of an infant in her care. In jail since May 2005, Nafeek’s sentence has been suspended in view of an appeal.

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