Plight of Lankan migrant workers

Consider this: A recent inquiry about some Sri Lankan male workers having problems in a Middle East country without receiving their dues triggered this response from the authorities: “There are bigger problems that to deal with.”

Close to a million Sri Lankans, over 60 per cent of them women working as domestic workers are toiling in the Middle East to earn a decent wage and valuable foreign exchange for the country. They leave behind their loved ones and often social disruption at home to provide a better education for their children or improve their quality of life.

In a sense, wage disputes may not be the main problems faced by migrant workers; there is rape, sexual harassment, disputes over overtime payment, food and accommodation issues and its mostly women who face these problems. Yet a problem is a problem and if the authorities are pushing a problem like a wage issue on the backburner, then there is something wrong in our policy of encouraging foreign employment.

Going through the Foreign Employment Act of 1985, it was discovered that there are a number of objectives relating to promotion of foreign employment or the protection and safety plus sound investment advice for returnees. On all counts we seemed to have failed in protecting our wor-kers or providing them a decent working environment.

There are a lot of pros and cons over this issue and finger pointing as to who is to blame has become a national obsession. The government is accused of not doing enough; employment agencies are blamed for fleecing the worker; migrant worker groups accuse both the government and the agents, and women’s groups protest over rights issues and sexual harassment while the worker watches this drama from the sidelines.

Last week there was an enough-is-enough approach by employment agencies that are preparing to take on the government because they face most of the flak when something goes wrong. A new campaign has been launched by the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) to clear their name sullied by accusations of corruption and lack of concern for domestic workers after they go abroad.

The job agencies are not totally to blame for the problems faced by migrant workers. The government must share much of the blame and migrant workers are also to blame. But this is not about the blame game.

We too need an enough-is-enough attitude and a coming together of all the stakeholders at a roundtable where all these issues would be discussed and solutions found. This should be an exercise in resolving problems; not pinning the blame. NGOs involved in migrant worker issues must also share the blame for the crisis that workers are placed in.

A coming together of the NGO movement in migrant worker issues is a must if we are to resolve these problems: otherwise it’s a case of meetings and meetings; a set of recommendations and ending at that. The ALFEA has set the ball roll-ing by pleading for a consultative process with the government when fixing minimum wages and other issues. This is a good model to follow.

Samath, a freelancer, wri-tes for THT from Colombo