Jaffna’s changing labour migration dynamics

Monday, 5 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Thulasi Muttulingam

An estimated 65,000 women left Sri Lanka’s shores as housemaids in the year 2016. Of these the greatest numberwere from Kurunegala and Colombo – 7,000 from each district as per statistics released by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment. 

The main exodus as per figures released by the SLBFE are from the South, West, and North Central Provinces. The Eastern Province has a few thousands migrating from each of its districts too. 

The lowest numbers, albeit picking up steadily over the last few years, are from the Northern Province. Jaffna and many of the other districts in the northhave been slow to pick up on this trend. Cut off by the war for many years, many northern women did not take up this employment option over the last few decades, where the rest of Sri Lanka saw a boom.

Ever since the war ended in 2009, though, the numbers have been picking up steadily, bringing with it several changes socially and culturally – thoughnot much economically – thatthe local populace are unhappy about.

As per Government records, 276 women left Jaffna as domestic workers, classed an unskilled category, in 2016. Some more leave without registering with the Government, but numbers as of yet are quite low in this region, ranging in the few hundreds.

The highest numbers from the north are from Mannar (653), followed by Vavuniya (443). 

From both these districts, the numbers are generally drawn from regions relatively less affected by war. People who had access to the rest of the country and were not cut off by warhave developed links and agencies to travel – mostlyto the Middle East, as migrant labour.

It is yet a trend to be established in the worst of the war-affected areas, even though the povertyand the need of the women-headed families there is greater. Only 64 left from Kilinochchi and two from Mullaitivu in 2016 as per SLBFE data. 


From wherever the women go, the people left behind do not have many positive things to say about the matter. In villages from where women significantly migrate, charges abound that the women:

nWould be sexually licentious once set ‘free’ in those foreign countries. They need the familial, cultural and social restrictions back in the village to keep them in check. 

nWould come back with sexually-transmitted diseases and therefore be sickly, because almost certainly they would have been raped by their employer – whichis somehow considered their fault as well, not much sympathy is exhibited for them.

nThat they are terrible mothers to their children for leaving them in the care of the fathers or guardians. The primary duty of childcare should solely be the mother's.

nThat they would be too ‘independent’ by the time they return, due to the arrogance of having worked abroad. They would no longer be meek and subservient and content to remain at home.

All of these are charges laid against women who are about to leave, have left, or have returned. 

As for the migrant returnees themselves, they span the spectrum from heavily traumatised by their treatment both abroad as well as once back here, to the newly-confident and empowered women who feel better able to handle their own lives.

What was different for the empowered women? The conditions they outline when questioned about their working conditions are abysmal. Yet when asked how they liked their jobs abroad, they enthusiastically gave positive responses. Here are a few samples:

“No one yelled at me unnecessarily. I only got scolded if my work was not up to standard, so I strived to be good at it. Yes, I had a lot of work to do from early morning until midnight, but that’s what we do back here too. We are used to it.At least over there, I earned through it and was appreciated by my employers for it.”

“I loved the freedom in Saudi Arabia to evaluate and understand myself as a person. Over here, we face a constant barrage of criticism from society, friends and family to be a certain way. It was while there, removed from our society's constant harsh feedback on who I was supposed to be and how I was stepping out of line of those rigidly set boundaries,that I managed to evaluate myself and came to understand my own thoughts, needs and personality. I discovered myself while out there.”

In answer to a follow-up question put to the above lady on exactly what kind of freedoms she had had in Saudi Arabia to explore and discover herself, she replied, “Oh I didn’t mean freedom in terms of time or ability, to go out anywhere or do anything other than housework.I worked round the clock, other than for the six hours I slept. They were exceptionally nice employers, you know? They allowed me six hours of sleep, unlike most other employers there. They liked and trusted me because I had no inclination to go out on my own.

“The only time I went out was once a week to do shopping. I had to cover myself in a black abaya and the lady of the house would come with me in the car, driven either by her husband or driver, to supervise my shopping. No, I meant freedom to process my own thoughts and understand myself contextually, in the absence of the barrage of constant criticism that gets thrown at us women here, as to who we should be and how we should behave, with little regard to our own thoughts and feelings on the matter.

“It was good for me to remove myself from our culture for a while and be placed in a completely foreign culture, so that I could evaluate our society from a distance and come to my own conclusions on how I would reintegrate into it, once I came back. Noone can point a finger at me now. Well they do, but I pay them no mind. I came back after 10 years abroad to marry and settle down. I went at 18 and returned at 28. I am a dutiful wife and mother. I continue to work here as a housekeeper for an NGO, and am quite strong in my views and thoughts. My husband is okay with it but my mother-in-law left the house in a rage, unable to see me treating my husband as an equal instead of being subservient to him.”

Another returnee: “People here claim that we must be sick with sexually-transmitted diseases because we returned from the Middle East. How dare they? When it comes to culture, do they know how much more culturedthe Gulf countries are? I was in Kuwait for seven years.The maama (lady of the house) would regularly check my phone every week to see if I had any other numbers or unwarranted phone call activity listed. I was allowed to have only her number and my Sri Lankan family’s number on my phone – andphone calls would be tolerated only to those two numbers. We were never allowed to go out of the house unless they took us somewhere. How could we be anything other than scrupulously moral in such a setting?

“As for clothes, we had to be covered head to toe in black even in the house. Only my face would show. The men of the house would not even talk or look at us. They would communicate whatever they needed from us through the lady of the house. We lived in a far more cultured place than anyone here, and yet they dare call us sexually corrupted when we return.”

As is evident from the above quotes, many women had a skewed perception and a very low threshold for what they termed ‘good employment’. Many more with visibly-puffed red eyes even to this day said: “The employment was good but we only had two to three hours of sleep per day.” 

It became clear through the interviews conducted with several returnees through the districts of the north that lack of time allowed for sleep is a common problem in the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

A single domestic worker would often be expected to serve several families living in multi-storeyed compounds – eitherdue to a system of extended families living together, or polygamous family systems. Once she finished working for one family, she would have to move on to the next. 

There was no concept of ever being able to take a break in between, nor any concept of off days or holidays other than for a two-week break every two years.

“We could never use any of the chairs in those homes. If we sit down on the floor for even a few minutes, the women of the house would scold us for slacking.”

Thus they often didn’t finish their work until well after midnight, yet had to be up well before dawn to tend to multiple families' needs before the children went to school and the adults to work. 

“I slept only two hours for five years in Saudi Arabia. The employers were very nice otherwise, they didn’t pay me until I returned however and gave my money as a lump sum for the five years’ service. I was happy with the amount until I reached home and an educated relative did the math and told me I had been cheated of three years’ worth of salary. I am illiterate and so didn’t realise the numbers didn’t add up.”

Sexual abuse

All of the returnees were reluctant to talk of any sexual abuse they might have faced; understandable in the context of the stigma they face over it, back in their communities. As such, many took pains to say their male employers had never even talked or interacted with them. 

In a few cases however, after first denying they had been abused, some relaxed over the interview period to detail stories that clearly showed abuse. None admitted to rape, but they did admit to being groped and sexual solicitations. Always with the entreaty, “Please do not publish this in the newspaper under our names. We face enough stigma back here already.” Having endured abuse, they silently bear it, and cringe at the many aspersions cast on their character and reputation.

For all this work and abuse, they earn on average Rs.20-30,000 a month from the Gulf countries, from which deductions are made by their employers for phone calls they make home and other miscellaneous expenses, including medicine.

About Rs.15,000 reaches their homes every month, which the families back here use up without saving. The remittances are enough to ensure the subsistence of the family back in Jaffna but not much else. Thus, when most of these women return home, they return to the same conditions they left, with no savings whatsoever. 

A few enterprising families over here take out bank loans to upgrade their houses on the strength of the migrant’s stable monthly remittances, but only in cases where the husband or other family members work too. Drawn from the most vulnerable and poorer sections of society, families from these villages are used to eking out an existence through wage labour on a subsistence economy.

“That Rs.15,000 our men and women send home is not more than what we earn here actually. We work about 15-20 days a month and earn around the same for coolie work here too. Men can earn up to Rs.1,500 for masonry work and women up to Rs.800 for domestic work or farm labour. Under such a system, we finish the money as soon as we earn it however. The only good thing about migrants' remittances is that their money gets deposited in a bank in stable, dependable amounts, so we are able to plan and where possible save, unlike how we deal with our daily wages,” explains one woman whose sister is in Qatar as a domestic worker, and husband in Saudi Arabia as a driver.

She has three children at home. Asked whether she found it difficult to cope as a single parent without the assistance of her husband who would get two weeks’ leave every two years, she was firmly negative: “No, he was a nuisance here, always drinking his wages away and causing trouble at home, beating me and the kids. Now he is in a country where he can’t drink, a very good thing, and his salary gets deposited to our account back here, so it is a huge relief. He can’t spend it either.” 

Effects of men migrating

Far more men than women migrate out of Jaffna currently, heading out as skilled as well as semi-skilled or unskilled workers to the Middle East. Their mothers, sisters and wives back home view it as a good thing, as they are prone to alcoholism back in Jaffna. "The Gulf countries are good. Workers can't consume alcohol there so it keeps our men in check." 

Yet here too stigma attaches – onthe women left back home.The migrants' wives report that they can’t step out of their houses to do shopping or talk to a male relative in the street before gossip about their licentiousness abounds, with unsavoury reports sometimes being sent to the husbands as well.

“Nobody ever talks about the men,” says one migrant's wife. “There are husbands left back here with wives abroad, drinking their remittances away and carrying on openly with other women. Some husbands who migrate leaving their wives here contract other marriages abroad. Yet, whatever it is they do, we are somehow blamed for it. People say we didn't satisfy our husbands and so it is our fault, not theirs. No stigma attaches to the men, no matter whether they were the ones to leave or the ones to stay, and over whether they indulge in adultery or not. The blame is always upon us women, whether we go or whether we stay, whether we engaged in adultery or were abused."

Socio-cultural dynamics

According to staff atSocialOrganizers Networking for Development (SOND), an NGO which works with labourmigrants and migrant returnees in the north, the social, cultural and economic issues surrounding suchlabour migrantsare many, few of which are positive. 

“The majority of the migrants to the Gulf are generally drawn from the oppressed castes and class in our society,” saysSONDExecutive DirectorSenthurajah. 

“The others try to migrate too, but to what they call the ‘big countries’ – Canada, Australia, UK and the like. The Gulf and other associated countries in which they will never gain permanent residency are called the ‘small countries’ in local parlance. Migrants to such countries will have to return eventually. They often return, especially in the case of women, to not much better circumstances than when they left, despite years of work abroad. In some cases, because husbands have gotten used to drink, and relatives including children have gotten used to stable remittances in her absence, the women are abused for no longer being the economic sustenance they once were, when they return."

He further adds: "If you study the villages these migrants are drawn from, you would see they have been traditionally relegated to the most resource poor of areas – placeswhere there is not enough ground water, infertile lands that cannot be farmed, and inadequate plots of land that lack the space to plant even a few coconut trees. A coconut sells for Rs.100 now. How can wage labour dependent families survive under this rate of inflation?Unlike the wealthier landed families of Jaffna with their own home gardens and coconut trees, they have to buy everything. The curses of the feudal hierarchical systems and caste continue to affect them – impellingthem to leave for exploitative work conditions abroad. This troubling migration pattern is not an accident. The inequalities of the past continue to fuel inequalities in the present, in our society." 

(This article is the first in a five-part series on labour migration of domestic workers from Sri Lanka. Next  article tomorrow)