By Gazala Anver
The Sri Lankan Foreign Employment Bureau (FEB) states that in the last four months alone, domestic workers going to the Middle East have brought in USD 1,688 million worth of remittances to the country. The Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare however said that the age limit for domestic workers going to the Middle East will be raised to 30 within the next three years.
Currently the minimum age to work in the Middle East is 21, raised from 18. Many who take up these kinds of jobs are the breadwinners of the family: there are even numerous cases of unmarried women leaving at a young age to earn their own dowry and to take care of their aging parents while they can.
When The Sunday Leader visited an SLFEB training centre in Kadawatha, during a training session where domestics and caregivers were taught how to look after another’s family in order to feed their own; it was evident that this increase in age limit would pose problems.
Subani barely looked 25, but she has a six year old daughter she would be leaving behind to work in the Middle East. “I was reluctant to go initially, I was really scared but not anymore,” she said, explaining that she had been separated from her husband, had no home to call her own and now lived with her brother. “We are in a lot of difficulty,” she said. “My mother will take care of my daughter when I’m gone.”
Subani is one among many. There were a mixture of women, from young to mature, some who were over thirty but many just past their legal age. Among the males there was a majority of young men.
The instructors are seasoned workers, who guided the trainees on how to perform basic duties as well as adjust to a new country and culture. “Many people who come here are those looking for a means to provide for their families,” explained Rani, an instructor. “They always tell us ‘we have to go’,” she said.
The SLFEB has been training housemaids since 1994. In fact, without a certificate, housemaids can no longer travel abroad. They have to complete their training, an important aspect of which is physical fitness.
Physical fitness is the first test they have to face: “If anyone fails the physical training on the first day, we send them back. They are not allowed to continue,” Rani said.
The duration of the training sessions vary according to the country of work: housemaids going to the Middle East for instance are trained for 15 days, whereas others train for five days. The training sessions begin at 7:30a.m. with an hour devoted to physical exercise.
Apart from lower remittances, which the instructors say is vital for a developing country like Sri Lanka, the quality of workers leaving the country will also be affected. Currently educational qualifications are not considered: instead it is physical fitness that is of paramount importance.
The country in this instance will not only receive lower remittances and have a vast pool of unemployed but will also have a weaker outward bound labour force, in a profession where physical strength plays a crucial role.
Every week brings with it new reports of Sri Lankans, working as domestics abroad, being abused or found dead, particularly in Middle Eastern countries. Horror stories have emanated yet, despite this factor, many still choose to leave their country and families to work abroad in hope of earning a better living.
OIC SLFEB Kadawatha Training Centre, Sujeewa Premasiri said that they train as many as 400 people in 15 days, getting them prepared for the hard life ahead. The trained housemaids are then sent to the Middle East, Singapore and Cyprus, while caregivers are sent to Israel, and non domestics (mostly male) leave for the Middle East. For every training session, 15 to 25 domestics are trained to leave for the Middle East. During the last six months,126,787 domestic workers left for the Middle East alone.
The domestics are all instructed on the law of the country, the culture, how to clean, cook and take care of children. They are also taught basic language skills as well as all important details such as contacting the embassy to complain against abuse. In such cases, Premasiri said, the embassy would try to resolve the problem by talking to the sponsors and if that failed, the domestic would be sent elsewhere to work or returned to Sri Lanka. She added that without the training, and the certificate obtained at the end, no one can leave for work and that the demand for domestics increases during the Ramazan season.
“They are also taught personal hygiene,” she said.
The living room was carpeted, with low cushions and a shisha bong prominently displayed. There was a sign stating “Model Arabic Living Room.” The rest of the building was fashioned similarly, with model bedrooms, bathrooms and even invalid rooms. The domestics, explained training instructor, Rani, who worked in the Middle East for 11 years, are taught everything from how to vacuum, when to vacuum, to how to arrange tea and coffee sets, how to set a table, soup bowl and cutlery arrangements, how to serve, use waster and steam irons, wash and clean. They were taught different types of bed arrangements, how to change curtains and most importantly, how to take care of a child and clean the baby room.
“After Rizana Nafeek’s case, we pay extra attention to teaching them proper child care,” said Rani. “They are taught how to bathe, feed, arrange, clean, remove the cot, how to carry babies, how to feed newborns, clothe them, the use of pampers, feeding chairs, how to arrange baby cupboards, clean and disinfect the room daily.”
According to Rani, even tasks such as climbing ladders to clean the ceiling and fan are covered. “It’s a completely different culture in the Middle East. They are very strict there, especially when it comes to religion,” she said. “It is important that the domestics leaving for the Middle East understand their culture and their laws.”
Many women, especially those leaving to Israel, went as caregivers, therefore, Rani explained, it was important they learned how to take care of invalids.
A group of eight women were practicing taking care of an invalid, with Rani showing them how to change blankets while the patient was on bed, how they should vacuum only, and not dust the room, how to handle wheelchairs and walking sticks, adult pampers and the medical set, how to arrange towels and take a urine count, among other things.
“The number of complaints received have dropped a lot,” Rani said. “Six to seven years ago we received many complaints about the maids, but now its reduced a lot.”
Glitches in the system
The environment was that of a typical tuition class, everyone chattering with each other, seated for lessons like school children, or giggling in groups. The building itself was very well ventilated and lit, and despite the sheer number of people running to and fro, and often getting in the way, they somehow seemed to be managing.
There seemed to be adequate resources and the building was well equipped. The only thing that they seemingly lacked was time. Rani herself explained that while the domestics learned everything from cooking to cleaning to law and culture, it was learning the language that was the problem. “We don’t have enough time to teach them the language properly,” she said.
In addition, one point to be observed was that while everyone worked in groups and was given tasks, and while they were taught in model bedrooms, dining rooms and bathrooms, would one lecture be sufficient for anyone to remember the ‘basics’ such as the intricacies of arranging beds differently during summer and winter, double bed and piece bed arrangement and all other details?
English instructor, Anuruddha Pannila, stressed that there wasn’t enough time to teach them the language. “Many of them come with a weak fundamental knowledge,” he said. “It’s easier in schools because everyone is in the same age group. That’s not the case here however,” he said.
In the Cyprus room, they were taught Greek. Phrases that might come in handy, such as “did you drink your medicine,” and “do you want more salt,” were taught as well as how verbs always came first in Greek.
During the cooking session, many women in aprons and caps covering their hair crowded around a table where different peppers were neatly chopped, and packets of pasta were arranged. However, is one brief lesson enough to bring all these points home, teach someone an entirely different culture and even cuisine?