Thursday, 29 August 2013 00:00
SIXTEEN Sri Lankan workers allegedly cheated by their employers and recruiting agents are struggling for justice and have sent a letter detailing their plight to a Qatar newspaper. This incident, which comes ahead of Saudi Arabia’s possible decision to increase access to Sri Lankan domestic workers to meet growing demand, should ring warning bells for the Government.
The tragic execution of Rizana Nafeek aside, the increase of migrant workers to the Middle East is worrying for several reasons. One is that despite Government attempts to regularise recruitment agents, there has been little progress on stamping out incidents similar to what has befallen the 16 Sri Lankans in Qatar.
Moreover, even if rouge agents are finally clamped down on, there is little headway that can be made to ensure that the Middle Eastern Governments and their companies, agents and contractors will provide adequate workers’ rights. This is further driven home by 18,000 Sri Lankans who have already or are waiting to take advantage of the amnesty offered by the Saudi Government to return home.
The main reason Saudi Arabia is looking to Sri Lanka and India for workers, particularly domestic maids, is because the Philippines and Indonesia have demanded better treatment of their people, which resulted in talks breaking down. Therefore, rather than improving their abysmal employer record, the Saudi Government is turning its beady eye towards the cheaper Sri Lankan “market”.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch had called for better treatment of low-income migrant workers whose numbers are expected to increase by an estimated million people in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar alone. In a 665-page 2013 World Report, HRW said that although some Middle East countries such as Qatar’s labour law limited working hours, required paid annual leaves and outlined requisite health and safety conditions for work environments, enforcement of the law was weak and did not cover female domestic workers.
Additionally, the report pointed out that expats were unable to legally unionise or strike in many of these countries, despite comprising 99% of the private sector workforce. The sponsorship system also makes it difficult for workers to change jobs or leave the country, even on vacation, without their employers’ permission.
High levels of abuse have been repeatedly highlighted in local media, yet a heartbreaking high number of workers, especially women, continue to search for a better life in Saudi. Within the first five months of this year alone, 19,445 women had departed to Saudi Arabia as housemaids. What has been done to ensure that they don’t join the 14,000 waiting at the embassy?
This is a siren call for the Government to get its act together and work to protect migrant workers in the future. It is clear that greater awareness and training is also necessary so that migrants can get better pay and work conditions. They need support services, including being able to save and invest their salaries here and in the country of employment, so that when an injustice is done they have an authority to turn to rather than waiting for amnesty from foreign governments.
Without a clear legal framework being ironed out, migrant workers run the risk of being victimised multiple times, not only by their foreign workers and regulations, but by the policymakers and diplomats of their own country who pay scant attention to their requirements. This amnesty should be the last time that Sri Lankans have to rely on a foreign government to return them to their homes.