28 Jul 2011 19:02
AMBATENNA, SRI LANKA – Rohini Jayalath, 42, left her home in Ambatenna in Sri Lanka’s Central province 15 years ago to search for a job in the Middle East in order to help her impoverished family.
Jayalath’s father died when she was 8. Her mother worked at a weaving center to earn money to support their family, but she died in 1993. With the responsibility of her siblings on her shoulders, Jayalath left Sri Lanka, where jobs were scarce, to search for employment abroad in 1995. A private employment agency helped her find a job at a factory.“I did a job at a factory for about eight years,” she says.
She says she saved her earnings and moved back to Sri Lanka in 2003 to start a better life for herself and her family.
“I started a small grocery shop in my village with my savings,” she says. “Now I am so proud to tell that it is in a well-improved condition. Luckily, I could construct my own house without taking any loan.”
She says that in recent years, the Sri Lankan government has increased support for migrant workers.
“Now the foreign job seekers get more government intervention than we got earlier,” she says. “Government provides big support and facilities now. Foreign embassies have been established in almost in all the Middle East countries.”
She says that the government is also working to resolve other issues.
“More attention is being given to the problems faced by the migrants,” she says. “Training for the foreign job seekers [has] been given by the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau, which is very important.”
As hundreds of thousands of women leave Sri Lanka to work in foreign countries every year, many say they are able to earn money to eventually start their own businesses and build houses back at home. But others say foreign employment destroys families and more needs to be done to improve migrant workers’ rights. Nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, and foreign employment agencies are working to help women succeed abroad. Meanwhile, the government has been implementing policies and programs to ensure migrant workers’ safety abroad and create employment opportunities in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan people used to live under the traditional agricultural system. Thanks to economic and social changes in the country spurred by globalization, they deviated from this traditional system and started to look for new employment abroad to strengthen their financial situation as well as the economy.
The Non-Aligned Conference, a meeting of countries not formally aligned with a major power bloc, was held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1976. The conference opened the foreign job market in Middle Eastern countries to Asian countries, such as Sri Lanka, where there were labor surpluses, according to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment’s latest annual report. With the introduction of an open economy in Sri Lanka in 1978, employment opportunities widened.
In the late 1970s, Sri Lanka became the only country to send women abroad as unskilled housemaids without any restrictions, according to a case study carried out for the International Labor Organization. The main destinations for Sri Lankan migrants have been Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, according to the World Bank.
Women made up slightly more than half of Sri Lankans who went abroad in 2009, according to the Bureau of Foreign Labor report. Nearly 90 percent of them went to work as maids. Thanks to the high rate of unemployment among females in Sri Lanka – more than 20 percent – the number of female migrant workers has increased throughout the years as women are educated here but lack the technical training required for many jobs. Whereas nearly 3,500 women departed for foreign employment in 1986, nearly 130,000 did so in 2009.
The report estimated that 1.7 million Sri Lankans were working abroad in 2009. Major factors that drive Sri Lankans to seek foreign employment include low per-capita income, unemployment or underemployment, high inflation and debts. Some Sri Lankan women say that domestic problems, such as alcohol and drug addiction among male family members, also compel them to leave the country for work.
Swarnalatha Perera lives in Kandy, a district in Sri Lanka’s Central province. A mother of two children, she went abroad seven years ago to work as a maid in the Middle East.
“I served as a housemaid in Kuwait for about five years,” she says. “I had to look after [a] small child 1 year old. Although the work I had to do so much, I was working there for five years.”
Like Jayalath, she says she earned enough money to buy land and build a house back in Sri Lanka for her family. She says she could invest her money in building the house because her husband, who works as a mason, earns enough to meet their daily needs.
“He works as a daily paid worker and earn[s] 1,200 rupees [$11 USD] per day,” she says. “Somehow, with little difficulty, our family can manage with the money he earns.”
But not all women have had as positive experiences with foreign employment as Perera and Jayalath because of social problems abroad or separated families at home.
Shyama Weerathunghe, 21, lives in Kandy with her husband, a government worker whom she married six months ago. She says she is originally from Anuradhapura, located in Sri Lanka’s North Central province. She says she has a negative view of migrant work because her mother was forced to become one.
“My mother went abroad as a housemaid in [the] Middle East 12 years ago,” she says. “Then I [was 9] years old.”
She says her mother didn’t leave for financial reasons, as her father was a farmer and they had enough paddy fields and land to make a decent living.
“But our father is very strict,” she says. “So mother and we underwent difficulties due to his cruelties. He always blamed us and used to assault my mother. My poor mother didn’t have any other alternative to avoid his cruelties.”
She says her mother went abroad to escape the abuse, leaving Weerathunghe and her elder sister with their aunt and uncle.
“Mother’s elder sister and her husband looked after us with love and affection,” she says. “We lived with their children very well.”
She says both she and her sister are married and successful, but that they haven’t heard from their mother since she left.
“We didn’t get any news about mother since 10 years,” she says. “The private agency, which mother sent abroad, is defunct now. Yet we are expecting our mother to come to us one day.”
She says she regrets that her family was separated when her mother went abroad.
“It always comes into mind that if our father had not been so rude, our mother would not have gone abroad,” she says. “Then four of us could have lived happily.”
The current case of Rizana Nafeek also highlights drawbacks of working abroad. Nafeek, a Sri Lankan migrant worker in her 20s, is on death row in Saudi Arabia because the child she was looking after while working as a housemaid there died.
Dilan Perera, minister of foreign employment promotion and welfare in Sri Lanka, told the media earlier this month that the Sri Lankan government was prepared to pay the dead child’s family any amount of “blood money” to release Nafeek. He said that President Mahinda Rajapaksa sent a personal request to the king of Saudi Arabia to release her, but that it was up to the parents to pardon Nafeek under Sharia law.
The Action Network For Migrant Workers, ACTFORM, is one NGO that helps fight for migrant workers’ rights in Sri Lanka. Voila Perera, senior project officer for ACTFORM, says that advocating for rights for women migrant workers is the most feasible option.
“The best option would be for women to work in their home country, but [they] can’t [be deprived] the option of being employed abroad due to their poverty,” she says. “Sri Lankan governments must handle problems of women in the workplace delicately.”
She says ACTFORM urges the government to implement the National Policy on Migrant Workers, approved by the Sri Lankan Cabinet in 2009, which takes the protection of migrant workers’ rights into special consideration.
“We strongly believe that it is high time the laws enacted and policies agreed upon on behalf of the migrant workers of Sri Lanka, who earn invaluable foreign exchange for the country, are to be implemented,” she says.
She says ACTFORM aims to help the government enforce the policy.
“Initially, we plan to take legal action against the wrongdoers,” she says. “We are already in the process of preparing papers for that. And we will take steps to keep the government alert on a constant basis about incidents violating the rights of migrant workers and urge them to take action against such instances and restore their safety.”
She says ACTFORM also provides training for foreign employees.
“We need to teach them specially languages – English or Arabic – make them aware of the low environment of their workplaces,” she says. “It will help to solve their problem[s] faced at the working places in the respective foreign countries.”
Dhana Roshana is managing director of Bismie Foreign Employment Agency, an agency in Kandy that sends migrant workers to Kuwait, where many work as housemaids, earning 21,000 rupees, nearly $200 USD, a month.
“Most of uneducated women seek for housemaid jobs in the Middle East countries, and at least they must have a proper training before they leave the country,” she says.
But Roshana says that training from the Foreign Employment Board needs work.
“Training needs a lot of [improvement], as it does not do much for the housemaids other than train them to become obedient servants,” she says.
But she says the government is working to change this and implement other initiatives.
“Government recently took a decision to raise the minimum age of a female domestic worker from 18 to 21 because 18-years-old girl is not matured enough,” she says. “At the moment, Foreign Employment Bureau is in the process of grading foreign employment agencies. This will help the people to find a reliable, good agency.”
She says her agency has an office in Kuwait that helps migrant workers with any problems.
“My agency take[s] care of all migrant workers who find jobs from my agency,” she says. “My agency office in Kuwait is always willing to help them.”
The current government has introduced a number of policies to enhance the protection and welfare of migrant workers and their families since it came to power in 2005, according to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s 2010 annual report.
The government created a separate ministry to regulate foreign employment – the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare – in 2007. The ministry launched the National Labor Migration Policy in 2009 in consultation with the International Labor Organization to articulate the government’s commitment to a labor migration process that adheres to international guidelines.
The government has also introduced compulsory training programs for migrant workers and has been encouraging youth to receive government training to develop technical skills and enter the technical foreign job market. The government has been promoting education for migrant workers’ children, too.
The government also grants housing loans with lower interest and special insurance plans to migrant workers and their families.
A computer network has been established to maintain links among the head ministry office, regional offices, Sri Lanka mission offices in foreign countries and local recruitment agencies. The government evaluates foreign employment agencies. The ministry has also signed bilateral agreements with the receiving countries, such as Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, for the security and welfare of the Sri Lankan migrant workers.
The government has also worked to create more job opportunities in the country. For example, it has initiated projects through microfinance institutions to promote self-employment opportunities for women, such as in dressmaking, food preservation and beauty culture. It has been promoting the tourism industry, which creates jobs for women and youth. It has introduced various professional training programs, especially for those who have dropped out of school, but it may take time to see the results of these programs.
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