Image via BBC

Much is written on Rizana Nafeek’s extremely unfortunate fate in Saudi Arabia (SA). Some written with anger let loose on the government and some on licensed agencies and every one else who could be dragged in. But to discuss SL migrant labour, one has to leave emotions aside and start off with a factual explanation of what this whole issue is.

An extremely deprived, poor Muslim family from Muttur, decided to find some stability to their living by sending their 17 year old eldest daughter for employment in the Middle East. In 2005 the salary would have been around LKR 16,000 (USD 150) per month and that for them would have been substantial. The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) does not approve House Maid (HM) applicants below 30 years for SA. At least in Sri Lanka the only instance when young girls agree to declare their age above the actual age is, when they want to migrate to SA as House HM. But for sure, this poor girl from remote Muttur, Rizana Nafeek, would not have even known, her passport was made with a false date of birth to get SLBFE approval. That’s when hapless parents are held responsible too for the misfortunes of their under aged children.

There are networks operating for good money that provide valid p.ports with altered details included. Well, it is a matter of feeding data to the computers at the Immigration Department that can be deleted if necessary, after the issue of the p.port. This therefore is nothing knew in the HM trade, where “Sub Agents” who are not legally bound to the SLBFE are employed on commission by the licensed foreign employment agencies to recruit HMs. Each year, over 100,000 HMs are recruited and leave to the Middle East (ME) after approval from the SLBFE. They now come from rural backgrounds, mostly from Wayamba and the East. At any moment, there could be over 900,000 SL migrant employees in the ME, not counting those who have more or less settled in some countries for very many years and have not been returning regularly. ME, according to SLBFE statistics have at an average, 90% of the total SL migrant labour. For every HM so recruited and sent, the licensed agency gets a “Dollar commission”, that often is not credited to local banks. Such a trade one must accept, can not be clean, decent and human.

The case of Rizana thus raises many issues, apart from what is done at Training Centres regulated and maintained by the SLBFE. Before they are sent for training, they are sent for a “medical test” that has only to confirm the prospective HM is not pregnant and has no sexually transmitted diseases and is “fit for work”. The possibility of medically asserting the actual age, is not included. If that was included,  Rizana’s age could have been raised and questioned, provided the Medical centres used for such medical screening are professionally honest. At the training centre,  trainees have to submit photo copies of their p.port and the National Identity Card (NIC) to the training centre. Where the p.port has altered date of birth, it carries no NIC number as there is a provision to issue p.ports for those who have lost or not had a NIC at the time of applying for the p.port, to be endorsed for a “single journey”. I do not know for sure, what the SLBFE does in such cases, when a trainee comes without her NIC but only a valid p.port.

Yet a 15 day training where the batches are not large batches, where personal interactions between the lady Trainer and the female trainees are not very restricted, it should not be impossible to guess or doubt the age of a “17 year old” teenager, what ever the documents provided, have in them. Therefore, there was every chance for the SLBFE Trainer to note Rizana was a minor and send her back to the Approval Division of the SLBFE for a second check, when she was presented for training. If such is not possible during training, then the SLBFE has to introduce a system where the trainee would be providing actual information at a direct interview. All major city schools do this. They collect from Grade 1 pupils the actual addresses of residence a few days after the schools begin, because all applications for school admissions to such popular schools have addresses around the school wall, bought for money to ensure admissions.

Migrant employment certainly has more serious issues than what most discuss around the Rizana Nafeek case and argue on. Let me list them to begin with.

  1. Validity and legality of the “contract” signed.
  2. Diplomatic status of SLBF in intervening
  3. Recruitment process and minimum quality of HMs expected
  4. Quality and status of recipient households that receive SL migrant HMs
  5. Why women continue to trek to ME in search of employment
  6. The role of governments in promoting migrant labour
  7. What could be the alternatives
  1. What is not told and what is used for marketing “migrant employment” is the “contract” signed between the HM and four others that has to be the (1.) employer (2.) foreign principal agent, (3.) local licensed agency and (4.) an Embassy / Consulate official. This is a total fake from beginning to end. This is not a legal contract in any form. It is not even signed in front of a Legal Officer of the SLBFE. More over, there is absolutely no guarantee on the authenticity of employer’s and foreign principal agent’s signatures. The two most important persons on the other other side of the “deal”. The other two signatures are not binding on a contract without legal witnesses. The applicant woman nor her spouse/parents understand it, except what is told to them by the licensed agent. The guidelines given by the SLBFE are extremely elementary and basic, even to hold the local agent responsible. Nor is it binding on the host country to oblige our State, our country. Therefore there is absolutely no chance for ensuring the contract is adhered to at the other end. As the Rizana case proved, none could put forward the presence of an “agreement” that held the SA government binding, in providing Rizana an investigation with the SLBFE official in the SL Embassy for KSA represented or even kept informed. This “contract” is FAKE and BOGUS !
  1. Most SL embassies in recipient countries of SL migrant labour have a SLBFE officer stationed within them. Especially in ME countries. These officers, placed as Labour Welfare Officers (may have more attractive designations now) were initially sent from the Labour Department on the argument that they are more conversant with labour related issues. That began to change towards end 1990 and the SLBFE was allowed to place their own senior management staff in embassies for monitoring and co-ordinating SL migrant labour. Yet the geographical spread and big numbers make our embassies irrelevant in tracking and co-ordinating migrant labour in those countries. Where public transport is minimal and the distance that have to be covered is calculated in 600 – 700 kms, that part of the work is near impossible. The main fact and the restriction is, the SLBFE representations are NOT accredited diplomatic staff. Therefore they have no authority to intervene in any of the government agencies’ or institutes’ ruling or work in their host country. It is the accredited Ambassador or the Counsellor who has to intervene. That is reason why the President holds the SL Ambassador to KAS responsible and NOT the SLBFE officer in the embassy.
  1. In SL, its just simply the requirement of being “literate” in one’s own mother language that qualifies one for migrant HM employment. This is because, the outflow of HMs to the ME countries from SL begun around 1980 – 82 was not a legally handled process and the demand to secure ME employment was then mainly from the poverty stricken urban population in Western Province. The Labour Department subsequently opened up a “Unit” within their department to monitor recruitment that was later used as the “expert base” in establishing the SLBFE under the SLBFE Act No. 21 of 1985. This Act has also established the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) as the only legal private business entity in the recruiting trade. Therefore, this migrant employment business was legally established as a “demand driven” business controlled by private agencies, for “profit”.  So is it now, though few restrictions have been brought to effect.
  1. What is most important in this chaos called “foreign employment” in SL that has over 85% women migrating, is the quality of households especially in the ME that have created the demand for our migrating HMs. In fact, they also decide the standard of cheap HMs provided from SL. The class of households that seek HMs from SL, the lowest segment of the middle class there, can not afford anything more than USD 150 – 160 as monthly salaries.  This is reason why KSA has refused to officially accept the SL proposal of agreeing to a minimum wage of USD 200 per month. Where USD 200 was accepted too, it is rarely honoured. Majority of the complaints received by the SLBFE would show that they are related to wages. This segment of the middle class there also have large families with two wives. They live in huge, multi storeyed flats where the climb is to the 10th or the 12th floor. Almost all categories of complaints to the SLBFE, don’t miss this reference in their complaints.
  1. Complaints, serious complaints, deaths and suicides have not been anything new in this labour trade. SL mainstream media has not failed to pick on any sexually or physically assaulted woman, or the body of a dead woman arriving at the BIA Katunayake, from the ME. They have turned up as crying human stories in the media for over two decades for now. Yet the government keeps promoting and the women keep going. None ask the question “WHY ?” Its plain. There is a “push” factor and a “pull” factor. The “pull” factor is about success stories around from the 80’s, when women went for just USD 100 and was able to buy a plot of land, start building a small house, help start a small grocery or finance a “3 wheeler” and may be even a small private bus, in early 80’s. Added is the selective reasoning of women in picking only those who return with glittering gold bangles on both hands and a generally freshened up, healthy look. What this social segment does not understand is that, the purchasing power parity of a Dollar was comparatively very much high then. The “push” factor is the growing poverty within a society that has “increasing social needs” not reflected in poverty related numbers and figures. Together they create a migrant trade, promoted officially through corporate advertising.
  1. Since Madam B requested opportunities for SL labour from visiting Heads of States for the 1976 Non Aligned Conference in Colombo, especially from those Heads of States from Libya and Iraq, every SL government whether UNP or SLFP led, had been working towards consolidating foreign employment. One and only reason for that is the increasing chunk of dollars these slogging labour keeps sending back, at little cost to the treasury and minimum responsibility to the government. Unlike with the pampered and hyped apparel industry that has to import everything from thread and needle to buttons and clothes while investing on machinery and equipment, this local labour generated “dollar income” is net profit. In year 2006 it had been 2,300 billion rupees, which is 34% of the total foreign earnings and in 2010 it was 4,700 billion rupees. Of this, according to SLBFE figures, ME alone is claimed to have remitted 2,800 billion rupees, which is almost 50% of the total remitted. This sector thus brings over one third of the foreign earnings to the country and that is every reason for any government without a clear national development programme to keep promoting.

All of the above, if kept beside Philippines and Indonesia, shows SL has not been working to improve the rights and conditions of migrant labour, though interested in their dollar remittances. Both Philippines and Indonesia have signed and ratified international labour laws in 2009 and now request bilateral agreements to allow migrant employment. Accordingly Indonesia in 2009 decided temporarily to ban migrant labour as HMs to Malaysia, one of their biggest destinations and Kuwait in 2010, to Jordan in 2011 and also to SA, again one of their biggest migrant labour markets and then Syria. Philippines have banned 41 countries that have not signed bi lateral agreements compliant with the standards, conditions and requirements as embodied in employment contracts prescribed by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. Of course these are not without corruption and negligence in our part of the world.

The other more important aspect is our position in quality, numbers and the socio cultural component within this migrant labour trade. Compared to around 100,000 plus women migrant labour from SL, Indonesia that sent around 700,000 each year had 75% women within that number. Therefore theoretically they should have almost six times the numbers in complaints, sexual and physical assaults, deaths and suicides than us. But with six times our number, they obviously have big numbers in complaints too. Therefore from 2012 November they have fixed their minimum wage in par with Philippines at USD 450 per month.

This would not allow the ordinary ME middle class to employ Indonesian HMs from 2013. This in fact is a major difference the Philippines maintained from the beginning. As they serviced the urban upper middle class that can afford 450 dollars per month or more as against SL maximum 200 dollars, the numbers sent to ME were comparatively small, being around 20,000 to 22,000 per year. Less numbers with the urban upper middle class are not very much far spread geographically and can be easily monitored too. Added benifit is their lifestyle and culture that accommodates HMs in a more acceptable and a comfortable “home” than SL HMs who are holed up in high rise, cheap apartment “houses” burdened with work loads of large families that can not afford much comfort. Their lifestyle and culture is very much traditional, backward and insecure that in turn creates cultural conflicts too.

We thus have to come to the conclusion, that individual “contracts” as signed here that have no legal status, often fake and servicing the lowest middle class in those ME countries for a pittance, can only turn out “Rizanas”. Once they leave BIA Katunayake, have no false hopes, these bits of paper signed and the basic “training” given through SLBFE centres can not give any thing extra to the HMs who have to either adopt to the demands of the economically and culturally backward large families, or return as disappointed, damaged or mutilated migrant labour, where neither the government nor the licensed agent can do anything other than pay some compensation in rupees.

What this Rizana Nafeek issue thus proves is, governments are comfortable continuing with a foreign earning source without any pragmatic proposal for decent national development. National development that could gradually absorb these women (and men too) into a stable rural economy that would keep growing. With governments only interested in servicing demand for migrant labour with more publicity, the poor has been trapped, trying to find some answer on their own, for their poor and deprived lives. This will not end, unless we start demanding the government should present a national policy with a programme for migrant labour for public discourse, before it is adopted for implementation. It is not enough, or rather not proper just to blame the government and the licensed agencies in a complete policy vacuum.