Under a new insurance scheme, the Sri Lankan Government will provide migrant workers with legal assistance in Middle East countries. The policy will kick off today and will fill a chasm that has been gaping for many years and caused grievous ends such as the recent Rizana Nafeek execution.
The Government has since then increased worker ages and put out several safeguards, but while this is laudable, more clearly needs to be done. Accordingly the minimum age for women seeking employment in Saudi Arabia is 25 years and other Middle East countries seven years. Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Cyprus, which have better working conditions, will receive female workers at 21 years.
The idea, as explained by Cabinet Spokesman and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, is that older women would be more responsible and therefore would not presumably be as prone to accidents during their work. Moreover, the Government is shirking from stopping housemaids to Saudi purely on economic reasons, which it sees as a tragic necessity.
As logical as that may seem, readers would remember that the documents that sent Rizana Nafeek to Saudi Arabia in the first place were forged, thereby demanding that better monitoring and processing of migrant workers is needed. In addition, better legal protection and quicker assistance is needed for migrant workers, especially women, given that as much as 48% is comprised of females.
It cannot be denied that the Sri Lankan authorities have also failed to uphold their duties to migrant workers. As terrible as Rizana’s death has been, there are scores of other migrant workers who die as a result of working abroad who do not get this same level of publicity. Inadequate efforts by the Sri Lankan Government in negotiating better terms for them, holding employers and recruitment agencies accountable, and swiftly aiding mistreated or abandoned workers in the Middle East has repeatedly been highlighted – but to no avail.
This is a siren call for the Government to get its act together and work to protect migrant workers in the future and provide adequate assistance to their bereaved families. While increasing the age limits for female migrant workers is a start, there is much more that needs to be done to ensure that poverty stricken women are assisted and empowered.
Women crushed under the burden of poverty have little consideration for rules and will likely do anything possible to circumvent them. This means that greater awareness and training is also necessary so that they can get better pay and work conditions. They need support services here and in the country of employment so that when an injustice is done they have an authority to turn to. Proposed housing and entrepreneurship loan schemes, while providing an incentive for migrant workers, are also part of a highly politicised process that leaves room for women to fall through the cracks. A special system has to be put in place so that savings and accessibility to loans and other financial schemes are given through an impartial framework. This will not only protect women but also give them a chance to invest and grow their savings while being able to return to their lives at home faster.
The Government will no doubt point out that its push to promote skilled labour migration would end tragedies such as Rizana’s, but without the right legal and official framework in place, many more Sri Lankans run the risk of danger while trying to give their loved ones a better life.