women
Family Background Report for Migrant Worker Women: Not Yet Abolished
by admin
January 29, 2016

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Over the past few weeks, feminists and other progressives have been excited to hear that the controversial Family Background Report (FBR) was going to be abolished. Reports such as this article – appearing in the state owned newspaper — gave that impression.

We got excited too and decided to write about it. But when we called the Ministry of Foreign Employment, we found that ministry hasn’t really reached a decision.

Senior Additional Secretary of Ministry of Foreign Employment (MFE), D.L. Sannasuriya said that the Ministry is now consulting various stakeholder groups in terms of whether to keep the FBR as it is, to amend it, or to abolish it completely. The outcome of the series of consultations will be revealed on March 8, World Women’s Day.

 

What is the Family Background Report?

So what the FBR is and why has it been in the news?

The FBR was made mandatory for Sri Lanka’s women migrant workers in August 2013. It was done as a protective measure to ensure that the children of such workers were not separated from their mothers during their formative years.

The FBR however turned out to be restrictive and unfair. Men who sought employment abroad as domestic workers were not subjected to an FBR. It was thus blatantly discriminatory against women.

Here’s a run through of some of the appalling provisions mentioned in the FBR regulations:

  • If the candidate has children under the age of five years, they cannot seek domestic work abroad.
  • If the children are above the age of 5 years, the mother has to prove that arrangements have been made to care for and protect their children before she (mother) is allowed to leave.
  • A cap was placed on the age at which migrant domestic workers can seek work abroad. Women over the age of 55 who have never been involved in domestic work abroad would not be allowed.
  • Minimum age limits were also set in place: no less than 25 years before a woman could apply to be a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia; and 23 years for any other Middle Eastern country; and 21 years for any other country.
  • Women falling within eligible age would have to go through a series of approvals! From government officers (Grama Niladharis, public health officers), to the Migrant Development Officers at the Divisional Secretaries, and then on to employment agents, and the guardian appointed to care for the children (in the absence of the father). And the list does end there. The migrant worker’s husband has to provide an endorsement as well! Final authorization is given by the Migrant Development Officer and approved the Divisional Secretary.

 

That’s several people and authorities to go through. Given the bureaucracy and time it takes to get anything processed in Sri Lanka, the applicant may well be 55 years by the time she gets all the required endorsements and approvals!

This is why some social activists wonder if the whole process was brought in simply to discourage women from seeking domestic work abroad.

Which may well be the case! According to the Additional Secretary of the MFE, migration of women for foreign employment has dropped by 12.8% during the period between January to September 2015 compared to the corresponding months of the previous year.

This is a cause for societal concern. For a large number of women who struggle to make an honest living in Sri Lanka, going overseas for domestic work has been a life-altering opportunity. The income they earn from hard work, when converted to Sri Lankan rupees, can help ensure that they live better lives when they return. Many have bought land and built houses for their families.

But what about all the horror stories we read and hear about in the news?

Yes, from death sentences and lashing to gory, unimaginable abuse by employers, this certainly is a problem. But let’s keep matters in perspective. Of the tens of thousands of women going overseas for such work, a very large majority return unaffected and raise their living standards.

Statistically few women face problems, and those receive wide media coverage. However, preventing women from seeking foreign employment is NOT the solution. We need better mechanisms in place to ensure that our migrant workers – both men and women — are better protected while employed abroad.

More can be done to address these problems. This includes placing Sri Lankan lawyers trained in Sharia law in these countries; better pre-departure training programmes for domestic workers so that they are aware of the laws and social customs of those countries; and arranging for legal help if they are abused or arrested when working abroad.

In other words, we as a society should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

 

If you would like to read more about the FBR, you can read through this report produced by the United Nations Sri Lanka and this article by the Women and Media Collective.

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