By Kusal Perera –
Much is written on Rizana Nafeek‘s extremely unfortunate fate in Saudi Arabia (SA). Some written with anger let loose on the government and some on licensed agencies and every one else who could be dragged in. But to discuss SL migrant labour, one has to leave emotions aside and start off with a factual explanation of what this whole issue is.
An extremely deprived, poor Muslim family from Muttur, decided to find some stability to their living by sending their 17 year old eldest daughter for employment in the Middle East. In 2005 the salary would have been around LKR 16,000 (USD 150) per month and that for them would have been substantial. The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) does not approve House Maid (HM) applicants below 30 years for SA. At least in Sri Lanka the only instance when young girls agree to declare their age above the actual age is, when they want to migrate to SA as House HM. But for sure, this poor girl from remote Muttur, Rizana Nafeek, would not have even known, her passport was made with a false date of birth to get SLBFE approval. That’s when hapless parents are held responsible too for the misfortunes of their under aged children.
There are networks operating for good money that provide valid p.ports with altered details included. Well, it is a matter of feeding data to the computers at the Immigration Department that can be deleted if necessary, after the issue of the p.port. This therefore is nothing knew in the HM trade, where “Sub Agents” who are not legally bound to the SLBFE are employed on commission by the licensed foreign employment agencies to recruit HMs. Each year, over 100,000 HMs are recruited and leave to the Middle East (ME) after approval from the SLBFE. They now come from rural backgrounds, mostly from Wayamba and the East. At any moment, there could be over 900,000 SL migrant employees in the ME, not counting those who have more or less settled in some countries for very many years and have not been returning regularly. ME, according to SLBFE statistics have at an average, 90% of the total SL migrant labour. For every HM so recruited and sent, the licensed agency gets a “Dollar commission”, that often is not credited to local banks. Such a trade one must accept, can not be clean, decent and human.
The case of Rizana thus raises many issues, apart from what is done at Training Centres regulated and maintained by the SLBFE. Before they are sent for training, they are sent for a “medical test” that has only to confirm the prospective HM is not pregnant and has no sexually transmitted diseases and is “fit for work”. The possibility of medically asserting the actual age, is not included. If that was included, Rizana’s age could have been raised and questioned, provided the Medical centres used for such medical screening are professionally honest. At the training centre, trainees have to submit photo copies of their p.port and the National Identity Card (NIC) to the training centre. Where the p.port has altered date of birth, it carries no NIC number as there is a provision to issue p.ports for those who have lost or not had a NIC at the time of applying for the p.port, to be endorsed for a “single journey”. I do not know for sure, what the SLBFE does in such cases, when a trainee comes without her NIC but only a valid p.port.
Yet a 15 day training where the batches are not large batches, where personal interactions between the lady Trainer and the female trainees are not very restricted, it should not be impossible to guess or doubt the age of a “17 year old” teenager, what ever the documents provided, have in them. Therefore, there was every chance for the SLBFE Trainer to note Rizana was a minor and send her back to the Approval Division of the SLBFE for a second check, when she was presented for training. If such is not possible during training, then the SLBFE has to introduce a system where the trainee would be providing actual information at a direct interview. All major city schools do this. They collect from Grade 1 pupils the actual addresses of residence a few days after the schools begin, because all applications for school admissions to such popular schools have addresses around the school wall, bought for money to ensure admissions.
Migrant employment certainly has more serious issues than what most discuss around the Rizana Nafeek case and argue on. Let me list them to begin with.
- Validity and legality of the “contract” signed.
- Diplomatic status of SLBF in intervening
- Recruitment process and minimum quality of HMs expected
- Quality and status of recipient households that receive SL migrant HMs
- Why women continue to trek to ME in search of employment
- The role of governments in promoting migrant labour
- What could be the alternatives
- What is not told and what is used for marketing “migrant employment” is the “contract” signed between the HM and four others that has to be the (1.) employer (2.) foreign principal agent, (3.) local licensed agency and (4.) an Embassy / Consulate official. This is a total fake from beginning to end. This is not a legal contract in any form. It is not even signed in front of a Legal Officer of the SLBFE. More over, there is absolutely no guarantee on the authenticity of employer’s and foreign principal agent’s signatures. The two most important persons on the other other side of the “deal”. The other two signatures are not binding on a contract without legal witnesses. The applicant woman nor her spouse/parents understand it, except what is told to them by the licensed agent. The guidelines given by the SLBFE are extremely elementary and basic, even to hold the local agent responsible. Nor is it binding on the host country to oblige our State, our country. Therefore there is absolutely no chance for ensuring the contract is adhered to at the other end. As the Rizana case proved, none could put forward the presence of an “agreement” that held the SA government binding, in providing Rizana an investigation with the SLBFE official in the SL Embassy for KSA represented or even kept informed. This “contract” is FAKE and BOGUS !
- Most SL embassies in recipient countries of SL migrant labour have a SLBFE officer stationed within them. Especially in ME countries. These officers, placed as Labour Welfare Officers (may have more attractive designations now) were initially sent from the Labour Department on the argument that they are more conversant with labour related issues. That began to change towards end 1990 and the SLBFE was allowed to place their own senior management staff in embassies for monitoring and co-ordinating SL migrant labour. Yet the geographical spread and big numbers make our embassies irrelevant in tracking and co-ordinating migrant labour in those countries. Where public transport is minimal and the distance that have to be covered is calculated in 600 – 700 kms, that part of the work is near impossible.
The main fact and the restriction is, the SLBFE representations are NOT accredited diplomatic staff. Therefore they have no authority to intervene in any of the government agencies’ or institutes’ ruling or work in their host country. It is the accredited Ambassador or the Counsellor who has to intervene. That is reason why the President holds the SL Ambassador to KAS responsible and NOT the SLBFE officer in the embassy.
- In SL, its just simply the requirement of being “literate” in one’s own mother language that qualifies one for migrant HM employment. This is because, the outflow of HMs to the ME countries from SL begun around 1980 – 82 was not a legally handled process and the demand to secure ME employment was then mainly from the poverty stricken urban population in Western Province. The Labour Department subsequently opened up a “Unit” within their department to monitor recruitment that was later used as the “expert base” in establishing the SLBFE under the SLBFE Act No. 21 of 1985. This Act has also established the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) as the only legal private business entity in the recruiting trade. Therefore, this migrant employment business was legally established as a “demand driven” business controlled by private agencies, for “profit”. So is it now, though few restrictions have been brought to effect.
- What is most important in this chaos called “foreign employment” in SL that has over 85% women migrating, is the quality of households especially in the ME that have created the demand for our migrating HMs. In fact, they also decide the standard of cheap HMs provided from SL. The class of households that seek HMs from SL, the lowest segment of the middle class there, can not afford anything more than USD 150 – 160 as monthly salaries. This is reason why KSA has refused to officially accept the SL proposal of agreeing to a minimum wage of USD 200 per month. Where USD 200 was accepted too, it is rarely honoured. Majority of the complaints received by the SLBFE would show that they are related to wages. This segment of the middle class there also have large families with two wives. They live in huge, multi storeyed flats where the climb is to the 10th or the 12th floor. Almost all categories of complaints to the SLBFE, don’t miss this reference in their complaints.
- Complaints, serious complaints, deaths and suicides have not been anything new in this labour trade. SL mainstream media has not failed to pick on any sexually or physically assaulted woman, or the body of a dead woman arriving at the BIA Katunayake, from the ME. They have turned up as crying human stories in the media for over two decades for now. Yet the government keeps promoting and the women keep going. None ask the question “WHY ?” Its plain. There is a “push” factor and a “pull” factor. The “pull” factor is about success stories around from the 80’s, when women went for just USD 100 and was able to buy a plot of land, start building a small house, help start a small grocery or finance a “3 wheeler” and may be even a small private bus, in early 80’s. Added is the selective reasoning of women in picking only those who return with glittering gold bangles on both hands and a generally freshened up, healthy look. What this social segment does not understand is that, the purchasing power parity of a Dollar was comparatively very much high then. The “push” factor is the growing poverty within a society that has “increasing social needs” not reflected in poverty related numbers and figures. Together they create a migrant trade, promoted officially through corporate advertising.
- Since Madam B requested opportunities for SL labour from visiting Heads of States for the 1976 Non Aligned Conference in Colombo, especially from those Heads of States from Libya and Iraq, every SL government whether UNP or SLFP led, had been working towards consolidating foreign employment. One and only reason for that is the increasing chunk of dollars these slogging labour keeps sending back, at little cost to the treasury and minimum responsibility to the government. Unlike with the pampered and hyped apparel industry that has to import everything from thread and needle to buttons and clothes while investing on machinery and equipment, this local labour generated “dollar income” is net profit. In year 2006 it had been 2,300 billion rupees, which is 34% of the total foreign earnings and in 2010 it was 4,700 billion rupees. Of this, according to SLBFE figures, ME alone is claimed to have remitted 2,800 billion rupees, which is almost 50% of the total remitted. This sector thus brings over one third of the foreign earnings to the country and that is every reason for any government without a clear national development programme to keep promoting.
All of the above, if kept beside Philippines and Indonesia, shows SL has not been working to improve the rights and conditions of migrant labour, though interested in their dollar remittances. Both Philippines and Indonesia have signed and ratified international labour laws in 2009 and now request bilateral agreements to allow migrant employment. Accordingly Indonesia in 2009 decided temporarily to ban migrant labour as HMs to Malaysia, one of their biggest destinations and Kuwait in 2010, to Jordan in 2011 and also to SA, again one of their biggest migrant labour markets and then Syria. Philippines have banned 41 countries that have not signed bi lateral agreements compliant with the standards, conditions and requirements as embodied in employment contracts prescribed by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. Of course these are not without corruption and negligence in our part of the world.
The other more important aspect is our position in quality, numbers and the socio cultural component within this migrant labour trade. Compared to around 100,000 plus women migrant labour from SL, Indonesia that sent around 700,000 each year had 75% women within that number. Therefore theoretically they should have almost six times the numbers in complaints, sexual and physical assaults, deaths and suicides than us. But with six times our number, they obviously have big numbers in complaints too. Therefore from 2012 November they have fixed their minimum wage in par with Philippines at USD 450 per month.
This would not allow the ordinary ME middle class to employ Indonesian HMs from 2013. This in fact is a major difference the Philippines maintained from the beginning. As they serviced the urban upper middle class that can afford 450 dollars per month or more as against SL maximum 200 dollars, the numbers sent to ME were comparatively small, being around 20,000 to 22,000 per year. Less numbers with the urban upper middle class are not very much far spread geographically and can be easily monitored too. Added benifit is their lifestyle and culture that accommodates HMs in a more acceptable and a comfortable “home” than SL HMs who are holed up in high rise, cheap apartment “houses” burdened with work loads of large families that can not afford much comfort. Their lifestyle and culture is very much traditional, backward and insecure that in turn creates cultural conflicts too.
We thus have to come to the conclusion, that individual “contracts” as signed here that have no legal status, often fake and servicing the lowest middle class in those ME countries for a pittance, can only turn out “Rizanas”. Once they leave BIA Katunayake, have no false hopes, these bits of paper signed and the basic “training” given through SLBFE centres can not give any thing extra to the HMs who have to either adopt to the demands of the economically and culturally backward large families, or return as disappointed, damaged or mutilated migrant labour, where neither the government nor the licensed agent can do anything other than pay some compensation in rupees.
What this Rizana Nafeek issue thus proves is, governments are comfortable continuing with a foreign earning source without any pragmatic proposal for decent national development. National development that could gradually absorb these women (and men too) into a stable rural economy that would keep growing. With governments only interested in servicing demand for migrant labour with more publicity, the poor has been trapped, trying to find some answer on their own, for their poor and deprived lives. This will not end, unless we start demanding the government should present a national policy with a programme for migrant labour for public discourse, before it is adopted for implementation. It is not enough, or rather not proper just to blame the government and the licensed agencies in a complete policy vacuum.
Rifkha Roshanaara / January 13, 2013
The most sensible article I have read so far on the said issue.
punchinilame / January 13, 2013
Having read all this, something is incomplete? If you are inclined to
watch this video clip of the beheading, with solemn Prayers to go with
it – here it is:-
Safa / January 13, 2013
Just as Indonesia did we should declare an immediate moratoriam on the supply of house maids to KSA. This will bring some pressure on the authorities and the job agencies to come up with a solution to this deadly problem. At a time when a salary of Rs 10-15,000 is possible in the garment industry and there are said to be so many vacancies it is crime that our womefolk are being sent abroad just for a paltry sum of Rs 16,000.
The beheading of Rizana is a watershed in foreign employment for sri Lanka and should be used to guarantee the safety and security of our workers in countries like KSA. Bringing home dollars is useless if some come back in coffins, body bags or wheel chairs. In the case of Rizana even her body has been disposed by the saudi authorities without the consent of her family which is a violation of sharia law.
Nabil / January 13, 2013
I travel often to the ME on business and have been shocked at the appalling conditions under which migrant labour earn their petro dollars.
Our politicians shed crocodile tears and pledge to uplift the working conditions of those in the ME. Yet they have no clue what needs to be done. If you walk in the our embassy in Doha, you will realize the pathetic state of affairs. Packed Political stooges who have no clue, hardly speak anything but their native Sinhala, can’t and don’t communicate with the officials, specially the police.
The ambassadors are no different, indifferent lazy and meandering. The Bangladeshi government banned their women from working in the middle, so does Indonesia. It is SL and the Philippines that supply a majority of the maids.
US $ from the ME being the only source of foreign exchange that covers the nakedness of this government one would expect a more professional approach to supporting our migrant workers.
But they have more important things to do here, to fill their pockets
HLANGL / January 13, 2013
If SL goverment care any sort of self respect (still I doubt), they should advise their people to withdraw/resign from employment in Saudi ASAP, give some transitional period so that they can come out of this hell, and withdraw SL embassy from this savage land altogether. And ask Saudi embassy too here in Colombo to pack bags & leave. We may be economically affected, surely, at least for a short period of time, but considering this utter insult despite years of request/appealing, we as a nation should be able to tolerate. After all, if Saudi Arabia never existed, wouldn’t we still survive.
HLANGL / January 13, 2013
If SL goverment care any sort of self respect (still I doubt), they should advise their people to withdraw/resign from employment in Saudi ASAP, give some transitional period so that they can come out of this hell, and withdraw SL embassy from this savage land altogether. And ask Saudi embassy too here in Colombo to pack bags & leave. We may be economically affected, surely, at least for a short period of time, but considering this utter insult despite years of request/appealing, we as a nation should be able to tolerate. After all, if Saudi Arabia never existed, wouldn’t we still survive ?.
HLANGL / January 13, 2013
To me, the basic question here is not just her age, what about the so called trial conducted, is it any fair trial ?. What’s so special about this bunch of hypocrites to execute people, that again by beheading, after conducting the trials without any proper postmortem, without any competent unbiased interpreter/translator given the clearly apparent gap in communication which can be vital in a trial like this, without any unbiased lawyer to appear for her who’ll do his/her best to make sure the full justice is done ?. Forget about whether she had been only 17 or 23, is this any fair trial even for any adult ?. To make the whole matter worse, they still upheld the original convction during the appeal, even after knowing the true background. How ignorant, selfish & mindless that sounds ?. How can anyone convict someone, that again to behead, without any conclusive evidence ?. Should any country be allowed to have a flawed legal system like this in this 21st century based on whatever these irrational beliefs ?.
HLANGL / January 13, 2013
It’s true that some part of fault is with the people who falsified the documents & sent her at her young age. True, well accepted, Sri Lanka also should have regulated these much more, yes. But Saudi Officials at least should have made some honest effort to understand this whole situation of this young girl who had sought for employment even at her very young age merely to make a living given the least privileged background she had come from even by SL standards. They never had that empathy in this case. Also just assume she was 23 and an adult, even then where had been the conclusive evidence that she had actually commited this crime ?. Can’t it be just by mistake ?. Where had been the evidence that this had been done purposely or due to her reckless ignorant behaviour ?.
Sonlight / January 14, 2013
MARA will export more and more women to ME even without any condition for foreign exchange.I blame husbands and parents of these women.They send their women to a alien country without any guarantee of their security even after hearing that most of the women are being sexually abused by their masters and even by the intermediates including the embassy persons as they are totally helpless in a strange country. Are we proud of our SINHALA culture. We are even ready to kill a next door person if he looks at our wives but allow barberian type of ME employers to exploit them in all means.
Lasantha Pethiyagoda / January 14, 2013
Sri Lankans should work towards dignity in labour, like other progressive countries. Do New Zealand women or Canadian, Japanese or Belgian women go to the Middle East as housemaids? No.
Several countries which had previously sent their women for slavery in the Middle East have stopped doing so, not only because those countries have developed themselves and found “decent” jobs for their women, but because they value their dignity more than the money.
Sri Lankan women cannot afford those luxuries. On the one hand, their men drink and waste their money, or idle lazily at home and expect to be fed by their women.
On the other hand, the luxury they see in the newly rich business class, or other exploitative parasitic class are so tantalisingly out of their reach. A simple roof over their head, a simple means of private transport, all seem so out of reach, with no opprtunities locally.
Governments only want the slave-labour-derived foreign exchange which pays for extravagant imports like luxury cars, amenities at their mansions etc. When this is the issue, Sri Lankan women have to bear the several consequences of broken homes, sexual exploitation, delinquent children, wayward and good-for-nothing husbands and an uncaring social environment.
No wonder the likes of Rizana have to pay the supreme price…
Mahela / January 14, 2013
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Jayantha / January 14, 2013
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K.A Sumanasekera / January 15, 2013
Srilankans, who go to the ME to work as maids are mainly the rural poor,
They are the 3rd preferred by Arb employers along side Indians, and well behind fair skin Asian women.
In this situation there is not much room to negotiate Wages and Conditions.
And the current Govt has done a tremendous job to put in place as many safeguards as practicable.
It is fair enough to offer constructive advice to the Govt on ways of improving these safeguards.
Sadly what has happened recently is every Tom Dick and Harry getting stuck into the Govt and even getting personal and insulting to these poor ME employees to get political mileage out of this one unfortuate incident.