ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 41
Financial Times  

Hasty decision on migrant workers

The government this week banned young mothers from going overseas as housemaids in an effort to tackle the growing problem of a social breakdown in homes. But the decision that is seen as too hasty and without proper planning including job security for the women concerned.

The decision ironically came on International Women’s Day, a day when women battle to be empowered. In this case the reverse happened – they were stripped of their rights.

No one denies the fact that young women going abroad puts a heavy burden on the family and there are many examples to show where young children have been neglected, not properly cared for, lost their childhood in being forced into responsible roles that are normally set apart for adults. The worst problem is the harassment and abuse, often by their guardians, mostly a relative or a father.

But migrant worker rights’ groups put forward a sensible point – what about the rights of the women and their need to sustain their families? Who is going to feed and clothe their family if they don’t have jobs they had in the bag? What of the many who were scheduled to leave and had borrowed money, mortgaged their house and property or pawned jewellery to pay a sub-agent to get a job? How do they recover this money?

As usual the government put the cart before the horse and took a decision without considering the repercussions. “You just don’t enforce a decision like this without offering them (mothers) an alternate source of employment. Otherwise who is going to feed and clothe their families?” asked Dr Nimalka Fernando, a women’s rights activist.

Under the cabinet decision mothers with children under five years will not be permitted overseas employment. Also mothers with children over five years must provide an undertaking with a recommendation from a committee headed by a local government official that the children would be well cared for by a proper guardian.

More than 60 percent of 1.5 million Sri Lankans who work abroad are women. Many who are employed as housemaids in the Middle East and Asia, leave behind broken homes and young children who are often neglected and abused, sometimes by a close relative or even fathers.

The issue is not however new and for years governments and migrant worker groups have grappled with the problem of children of migrant workers. In around 2003, the then United National Party (UNP) government planned a similar ban but apparently with a relief package that included some income-generating opportunities for women wanting to work abroad.

This is the second hasty decision this year by the authorities relating to migrant workers. In January, the government decided to sharply raise the minimum wage for jobs as housemaids overseas at US$250 per month from around US$100 to 150 but the plan quickly fell apart after employment agents protested saying no foreign employer would pay such a high wage for unskilled workers. Even Filipina workers, who are more educated than their Sri Lankan counterparts, aren’t paid that much to work as housemaids.

The intention of that move was to reduce the number of unskilled women going abroad and encourage more skilled workers to get jobs. The plan has been suspended at the moment.

The Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (SLFEB) is backing the latest move saying it should have been done a long time ago – since they receive many requests for mothers to return home as their young children needed them. Often in training sessions for those scheduled to go abroad, women with young children are asked to reconsider their decision to go abroad but the process has failed as it is voluntary.

SLFEB officials say the move would affect only about 15 percent of migrant workers and not Saudi Arabia, the biggest market for Sri Lankans, where only housemaids who are over 35 years old are recruited.

The plight of Sri Lankan women working abroad is pathetic – they need the jobs to sustain their families but are not equipped to face the challenge of working in an unknown environment. Two years ago, two nuns from Caritas, a church-funded non-government organisation working to alleviate the suffering of housemaids in Jordan, appealed to Sri Lankan authorites to discourage young mothers from going abroad.

"They are clueless about what lies in store for them in Jordan. These women come here and cry for their babies. They are very homesick. They shouldn't be here in the first place," Sister Ursula, a German Catholic nun, told The Sunday Times at the time.

This week’s decision by the Women’s Empowerment Minister – although well intended - will create chaos and confusion for those who are preparing to leave in the next few days. Migrant workers represent a sector that brings in the highest amount of foreign exchange in remittances – some US$2 billion last year with estimates this year at US$3 billion – but often their rights are violated or voices not heard like in the current case.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.