Saving the migrant worker

Monday, 4 October 2010 23:22 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

SRI LANKA’S migrant workers seem to be caught between a rock and hard place following reports that the Saudi government has banned the recruitment of housemaids. Even though the Sri Lankan government has denied any such situation, the actual fallout is yet to be determined.

According to the Saudi Gazette the National Recruitment Committee in Saudi Arabia has called upon all private recruitment offices in the Kingdom to sign no further contracts for the employment of Sri Lankan nationals from abroad.

The “extremely urgent” call followed disputes between the Sri Lankan Labour Union (ALFIA) and the Sri Lankan Labour Office, which could lead to delays in the arrival of workers to the Kingdom. It is also a response to the Sri Lankan media’s negative portrayal of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the National Recruitment Committee and ALFIA which was due to come into effect on 10 September.

The MoU signed with ALFIA set recruitment charges at a maximum of SR5, 500 for housemaids according to a Saudi newspaper.  The article further went on to say that the Sri Lankan Ministry of Labour reportedly backtracked on the pretext that the MoU will deprive the Lankan economy of an additional income of over $50 million.

Recruitment offices in the Eastern Province had said on Sunday that most of them had already put the suspension into effect, and that with the situation currently “unclear” it would remain in force.

Most offices are now turning to Indonesia as a viable alternative,” said one office representative. Indonesia remains committed to the MoU it signed and which came into effect early Ramadan. The MoU with Indonesia sets recruitment costs at SR6, 000, with visa fees on top.

This would result in a serious concern for the government that depends on foreign remittances to a large extent as a source of foreign exchange. Moreover it would have serious repercussions for thousands of people who depend on migrant workers’ hard earned salaries for survival.

The disturbing incident of a housemaid being injected with nails that gained immense popularity is just another indication of the deprivations that migrant workers undergo in these countries. In a sense the government has an obligation to stand up for its citizens and ensure that they are treated properly. Unfortunately it must also be done without making the country lose opportunities, at least till alternatives can be found for the people.

It cannot be denied that Sri Lanka is still a poor country and that it needs the assistance of migrant workers in many capacities. The government moves to send trained labour abroad will also take time to materialise, but even then, brain drain should not be encouraged as Sri Lanka is vehemently focused on development.

So then where is the solution? Perhaps it is in striking a balance between these two extremes — on the one hand safeguarding migrant workers and on the other, the opportunities they have, by maintaining a closer relationship with the Saudi government and the relevant departments in that country so that not only do people have the chance to go to work abroad but also have the capacity to protect themselves.

Migrant workers are people too, and they should be given the chance to have basic rights and space to be in a conducive environment. It is in the best interests of both governments to ensure this. Generating a culture of trust and humanity is the hardest of all and rarely comes into the purview of many of these transactions that are done more with human lives than just money.