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SRI LANKA: Saudi Death Sentence for Maid Shakes Govt

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Jul 13 2011 (IPS) - The Sri Lanka government is considering a further tightening of age restrictions on women leaving the country to become domestic workers. But some analysts say this is a quick-fix solution to the problem of women running afoul of the law abroad.

Sri Lankan authorities have been grappling with ways of restricting the flow of migrant women abroad due to complaints of non-payment or delayed wages, sexual abuse, and long working hours – issues faced by most domestic workers abroad. Often these issues remain unresolved.

But the latest case to stir Sri Lankans’ conscience is that of Rizana Nafeek, who is awaiting execution in Saudi Arabia. Nafeek was found guilty of killing a baby who had choked to death while in her care. She was sentenced in 2007.

The argument that Nafeek was duped by a local agent and travelled to Saudi Arabia as an underaged worker (below 18 years old) failed to move Saudi authorities. Nafeek’s execution has been delayed, however, due to appeals from Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Protests have been held in front of the Saudi embassy in Colombo pleading for Nafeek’s release. The protests were prompted by fears she would be secretly executed, after an Indonesian maid was beheaded last month for murdering her Saudi employer’s wife. Indonesian officials said they were not informed of the execution.

But advocates say imposing age restrictions is not the right approach. “These age barriers are not going to solve the problem,” said J.C. Weliamuna, a human rights lawyer and director of the Sri Lanka branch of the global rights watchdog Transparency International.

Last week, Minister of Foreign Employment Dilan Perera told Parliament the government was planning to raise the minimum age for a domestic worker going abroad to 30 years. Since January 2011, the minimum age has been 21 years and before that, 18 years. Perera also said the maximum age for overseas-bound domestic workers will also be changed to 42 years from the current age limit of 50.

Remittances from workers abroad are Sri Lanka’s second largest foreign exchange-earner after commodity exports. More than 1.6 million Sri Lankans are contract workers in the Gulf, Asia and Europe. Close to half this number are women working as domestics, mostly in the Gulf.

Most migrant worker activists like Viola Perera, coordinator of Sri Lanka’s ACTFORM (Action Network for Migrant Workers) believe that the best option would be for women to work in their home country but the option of being employed abroad is their right and “as long as that happens we need to ensure their protection overseas.”

Perera said Sri Lankans must handle problems of women in the workplace delicately. “We can’t be blaming those governments; otherwise we’ll be placed in a situation similar to the beheading of the Indonesian maid (without the Indonesian authorities being informed). Our priority is ensuring Rizana’s freedom. That’s paramount in this particular case,” she said in reference to the protests blasting the Saudi government for Nafeek’s sentence.

Advocates admit a lack of skills and basic understanding by domestic workers is also a problem. “We need to teach migrant workers rights with responsibilities,” said K. Velayutham, president of Sri Lanka’s National Trade Union Federation. “If workers are not responsible and don’t do the job they are assigned to, how can they claim rights? They need to perform the work they have been paid for.

“We need to teach them languages – English or Arabic; we need to make them aware of the environment they work in; we need to teach them the law so that they know if they violate it they would be taken to task,” Velayutham added.

But advocates expressed concern over the treatment of domestic workers in the Middle East. William Gois, regional coordinator of the Manila-based Migrant Forum for Asia (MFA), says the “kafala” (sponsorship) system, where the worker is not permitted to leave the house, is like a form of slavery. Migrant groups have been calling for the system to be stopped or reformed, as in Bahrain, where some mobility of movement is now allowed based on guidelines or consent between the sponsor and the worker.

At a two-day consultation in Colombo on migrant issues in Asia, Gois said his group was working on a reference wage rather than a minimum wage structure, relaxing the kafala system. The MFA has also launched a campaign to carry forward last month’s passage of the International Labour Organisation’s Convention on Domestic Workers, which applies to both domestic workers in their home countries and migrant workers employed as domestics.

At the meeting, Filipino officials pointed out that in an effort to minimise abuse and harassment, they are observing a rule that only countries with bilateral agreements with the Philippines can recruit workers. These countries must also have ratified key U.N. conventions connected to human rights and migrant workers.

“If we cannot ensure protection of rights for our workers in a particular country, we should not send them to that country,” said one Filipino official.

Both migrant support groups and employment agents blamed authorities for the multitude of problems workers face. Wijaya Udupitiya, who runs an employment agency, said the state-run Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau doesn’t share its data with all stakeholders.

“For example how many people are unregistered (with the bureau), how many Sri Lankans are in safe houses in Sri Lankan missions overseas, how many of these are runaways after working two to three weeks in a house?” he asked, saying that about half of all migrant workers go abroad on their own and not through local agents.

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