Can We Protect Our Migrant Domestic Workers?
by Kiyanna Admin
November 20, 2015

This week a Sri Lankan migrant domestic worker was sentenced to death by the Saudi court. Her crime was having committed adultery with a Sri Lankan male migrant worker.

The grim punitive laws of Saudi Arabia have remained the same for centuries. The male worker has been sentenced 100 lashes, while the female domestic worker was sentenced the much harsher penalty of death by stoning. It’s unclear as to why they were dealt different sentences; however the Sri Lankan government has appealed to the Saudi government to reduce the severity of the woman’s sentence.


The dark side of migrant domestic work

Rizana_Nafeek_protesterThis isn’t the first time a migrant domestic worker has been sentenced to death. In 2013, Rizana Nafeek was beheaded after many attempts for clemency failed. It’s not only the Saudi government that delivers barbaric sentences; domestic workers often face very harsh treatment by their employers as well.

 In 2010, Ariyawathie admitted herself in hospital when she returned to Sri Lanka, where doctors found 13 nails and 5 needles that were inserted into her flesh by her employers. Nilanthi from Polonnaruwa was reported over 12 metal wires were pierced into her legs.
Death sentences and abuse aside, many impoverished women seek domestic work in the Middle East and some even forge documents to do so. According to the 2012 statistics of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign employment, an estimated 1.8 million Sri Lankans work abroad. Almost half (49%) are women, and 42% of them have migrated abroad as domestic workers.

As several men and women seek foreign employment the numbers prove some Foreign employment is one of the top income generators in Sri Lanka. Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Employment says that “since the 1970’s when formal employment migration commenced, foreign employment has generated substantial inflows of remittance at the same time relieving pressure on unemployment of youth by providing employment abroad”. The former minister of foreign employment states, that it is ‘by far, the dominant sub-economy of Sri Lanka, it’s impact having several economic and social consequences’.


Children of domestic workers

Up until now, it was widely believed that one of the negative social impacts of women seeking work abroad was leaving children in the care of their fathers or guardians. A report by the United Nations titled, Sri Lankan Migrant Domestic Workers, launched on November 18 reveals that this assumption is faulty. Overall, the report provides a better understanding of the impact of these policy instruments on wokers’ right to freely access employment of their choice.

Dr. Ramani Jayasundera, Senior Technical Advisor on Law, Justice and Gender at The Asia Foundation, said at the launch that abuse of children of domestic workers is often attributed to the mother’s absence. However, there are many cases where the father has successfully cared for the children single-handedly. These positive stories go unreported.

The report notes that there is a “rising opposition against women migrating as domestic workers based on media reports of negative impacts on the children and families of women domestic workers [which] has led to a number of policies and practices to stem the migration of women to the domestic work sector.”

From January 2014, it has become mandatory for a Family Background Report (FBR) to be completed by all women seeking overseas migrant employment in the domestic sector. The FBR is aimed at ensuring “informed decision making focusing primarily on the care and protection of children of female domestic workers”.

More recently, the current Minister of Foreign Employment has said she wants to phase out migrant worker women with children under the age of 5 years. This has been criticized by women’s rights groups as an ill-conceived policy that would deprive women of economic rights and opportunities.

Dr. Sepali Kottegoda, a renowned women’s rights activist, said it disfranchises women. These laws deprive them of earning for themselves and supplementing the household income. This shouldn’t be the case.

Deputy General Manager of the Foreign Employment Bureau Mangala Randeniya, said that women should not be restricted. Instead fathers should be taught how to care for the children.

Men are naturally just as able to care for their children as women are. Though men and women are pigeonholed into particular family roles, men over the world have proved capable adopting the role of a care-giver. 


What can be done to empower and protect women migrant workers in tandem?

The research team, for the report on migrant domestic workers, had a few recommendations for ensuring that women migrant workers are not deprived of employment opportunities and are protected when they work abroad.

They advised the ministry and other stakeholders to increase discourse on women’s right to employment, notions of family, motherhood and fatherhood and use these discourses to support decision making and practical measures that impact all aspects of the process of migration.

They also suggested providing women with alternatives, as some migrant workers expressed that they were aware of the abuse that domestic workers sometimes face, but decided to brave it as they had no other choice.

The report on migrant domestic workers recommends revising and updating the National Labour Migration Policy. Also suggests abolishing the Family Background Report, and instead “create researched, evidence-based strategic mechanisms to provide support to female and male migrant workers and their families, who seek and ask for support and protection”.

The issues are also extremely controversial. However, the rights and welfare of the migrant domestic workers must be at the heart of the debate and future policies.


Featured image source: http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/18752


Kiyanna Admin