IRIN: After a string of abuse cases against Sri Lankan domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is working with the Government of Sri Lanka to promote skilled labour migration – as opposed to domestic work – as a way to protect those who choose to leave the country to make a living.
The new Government action plan will incorporate measures to enhance workers’ skills and strengthen safety measures. ILO officials said Sri Lankan domestic workers encountered problems due to the unskilled nature of their work and the lack of contracts and support systems.
“The Government recognises that a key element in protection [of] all migrant workers is the possession of skills,” said Pramodini Weerasekera, Programme Officer at ILO’s office in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. “Thus the state will set in place a process for providing skills to workers and promoting the migration of skilled labour.”
At present, the Sri Lankan Government requires domestic workers to attend a 15-day awareness programme, in which they learn the laws, customs and language of their destination country as well as general job skills such as how to use modern appliances and equipment.
But some – such as Rizana Nafeek – the 21-year-old Sri Lankan domestic worker convicted in May 2005 of infanticide in Saudi Arabia – still turn up in their host country without the skills they need, to the frustration of their employer, creating a situation that can turn dangerous.
“The State will review and enhance the current pre-departure training programmes for migrant workers leaving for domestic work, in order to, in the short term, minimise harassment and abuse,” Weerasekera said.
Recent headlines announcing the Saudi government’s 7 December decision to suspend the beheading of Nafeek drew attention to the issue of violence against Sri Lanka’s migrant domestic workers. This year at least three returned to Sri Lanka alleging severe abuse.
In August, doctors removed about 20 nails embedded in the body of Lahadapurge Ariyawathie soon after her employers sent her back to Sri Lanka from Saudi Arabia when the wounds began to fester.
She says she was abused when her employers became frustrated after her first two weeks on the job. Two more cases involving nails have since been reported.
“We do not encourage or discourage the migration of females as domestic workers. But we encourage females to gain more skills if they are going to foreign countries,” said L. K. Ruhunage, a Government Manager for the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE).
While any abuse is to be condemned, he added that out of tens of thousands of annual migrant domestic workers, his office received only a handful of complaints.
In response to similar reports of violence against Indonesian women working in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, is moving towards halting such migration. In November, East Nusa Tenggars province placed a moratorium on women seeking work in Saudi Arabia.
Human Rights Watch urged all three governments – Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia – to address the problem in a “timely and comprehensive” manner.
But in Sri Lanka, the abuse has not discouraged domestic workers from going to the Middle East and elsewhere, Ruhunage added.
There are about one million Sri Lankan women employed as unskilled domestic workers outside the country.
According to the Foreign Employment Bureau, they contributed more than half of US$ 3 billion in remittances in 2009, the country’s largest net foreign exchange earner.
Nafeek hails from the eastern village of Muttur, about 300 km from Colombo. Her family of six could not survive on her father’s earnings as a wood cutter. “She went to Saudi to help us build a house,” her mother told IRIN.
Most women work in the Middle East, with the largest number in Saudi Arabia — 42,000 out of more than 77,000 who went to the region as domestic workers in 2009, according to the government.
Basil Fernando, Director of Policy and Development at the Hong-Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) said if governments in both the host and country of origin set up a safety network, unskilled workers could obtain legal and counselling assistance without delay.
“There are limited resources with the Sri Lankan mission [Government representatives] in Riyadh to help these domestics,” said Fernando. “The Saudi legal system is also not geared to help them.”
However, Ruhunage said it was important for a domestic worker to report any abuse before returning to Sri Lanka. “If these things happen in the host countries and are reported to the mission before returning to Sri Lanka, they can take necessary legal action,” he said.