In 2014 an estimated 300,000 men and women left Sri Lanka to work primarily in the Gulf States. The majority of men went into the construction industry whilst the women accepted jobs as housemaids. They went because they wanted to provide for a better life for their families, and the government was happy for them to go; not least because the money they send back (remittances ) amounts to $7billion; or 9% of GDP.
What the migrants didn’t know or expect was that the contracts they were promised would never materialise and many of them would end up working in conditions which amount to modern slavery.
This recent report in the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror is a good place to start: www.dailymirror.lk/article/Fotune-favoured-Rani-from-the-jaws-of-death11936
Sri Lanka does not rank highly on the Global Slavery Index, yet pollsters estimate there are approximately 26,000 Sri Lankans trapped in a form of modern slavery in 2016;
My guess is that you might find this hard to believe, but that is because:
- Slavery is illegal, so it is either hidden tacitly ignored by the authorities or denied by the perpetrators. But in any case it goes unrecorded; one example Ask yourself next time you stop at the traffic lights in Colombo. Do the beggars you see keep the money you give them or are they forced to hand it over to others in exchange for the most basic of food and shelter; in effect slaves. We could go on.. the case of sex workers would be another instance
- More importantly; most Sri Lankans trapped in slavery are not living in Sri Lanka but in The Gulf States
Facts and Figures: Migrant workers
- An estimated 1.7 million Sri Lankans are employed abroad affecting 1 in 4 households.
- A total of 300,413 left for employment in 2014 of which 63.2 were males and 37% were females
- 80% of females were employed as domestic workers
- The Middle East is the largest source of remittances: 60%
- Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are their main destinations
Why they go
You can think of three groups of factors; geographers will already be familiar with them:
- Low incomes whether in rural or urban areas; not enough income to adequately support a young family. Even where there is relatively full employment, wages are low. A textile factory worker will not earn much more than 25000 rupees per month; not enough to sustain a comfortable way of life. The same is true of office workers. Few are paid a living wage.
- Lack of opportunity for advancement
- Political patronage at a local level
- A general feeling that life must be better elsewhere
- the promise of high incomes
- migration to the Middle East is a well trodden path; often an individual will know of people in their community who are already migrants; they hear the stories…
- some migrants already have people living and working in the Gulf who can help them get jobs
- local agents and their contacts who are active in local communities arranging documents
Plus, of course they have no idea of what is waiting for them when they get to their destination
Where they go and where they come from
The top destinations are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, The Emirates and Kuwait with smaller numbers heading to Oman and Jordan. Whilst Western province is the biggest exporter in terms of numbers; in terms of the % of the population it is, in fact Ampara Trincomalee and Puttalam who export the biggest % of their population; (around 3%) annually
Life for a domestic migrant worker in the Gulf States
The migrants are often recruited by unscrupulous and unregulated agents on the promise of high incomes. The agents or employers not only pay their fares, but also arrange for passports and visas, sometimes illegally.
Migrant labourers often receive a monetary advance as an incentive to work overseas. What they are not told, or don’t realise is that these incentives will bind them into debt upon arrival in their host country. Worse is to follow: recruitment agencies in the host country regularly commit fraud by changing the agreed upon job, employer, conditions, or remuneration after the worker’s arrival.
A recent report alleged that the police and other officials in Sri Lanka accept bribes, and some sub-agents reportedly work with officials to procure forged or modified documents, or genuine documents with falsified data, to facilitate travel abroad for those desperate for a better life. The problem is that these documents are not legal. The migrant enters a country with these documents and is immediately at the mercy of their employers who could report them at any moment.
The report also observed that the Sri Lankan government does not have the ability to regulate sub-agents under the SLBFE, which officials recognized as a problem contributing to trafficking.
The situation is made worse because the migrants have little knowledge of the situations they are going to end up in. For domestic workers in particular, this involves the Kefala system, which ties the domestic worker to one employer, effectively giving that employer full control over the migrant worker. (click on the link to check this out)
The reality is that the migrants end up in slavery. Their passports are often taken from them. Employers routinely pay well below what the workers were promised, and sometimes refuse to pay their workers at all. Housemaids in particular live under conditions similar to house arrest: subject to mistreatment, abuse and both physical and sometimes sexual violence.
- Complaints: 12,061 of which 78% females
- Physical and sexual harassment: 96% female
- Not sent back at the end of contract: 92% female
- Not payment of agreed wages: 81% female
- Breach of contract: 62% female
- in 2009 333 deaths of housemaids working abroad were recorded
- 2009 survey states about housemaid returnees to Sri Lanka
- 48% were assaulted by someone from the employer’s household
- 52% were not paid the promised salary
- 84% were not paid for their overtime work
The situation for the women who end up in domestic work can be grim and there are plenty of examples you can find for yourself by going online: For example have a look at:
- “Exported and Abused” a report published by Human Rights Watch
- Violation of Migrant Women Worker’s Rights in Middle East
- Modern Slaves; Domestic workers…
- Serious violence in the Gulf States
see link; serious violence in the Gulf States
this an extract from another victim’s story
“Even if I went to bed at 3:30 a.m., I had to get up by 5:30 a.m I had continuous work until 1:00 a.m., sometimes 3:00 a.m…. Once I told the employer, “I am a human like you and I need an hour to rest.” She told me, “You have come to work; you are like my shoes, and you have to work tirelessly.”
The conditions were getting worse. I told the employer that I wanted to leave but she would not take me to the agency. [Her husband] would say, “You want to go, you want to go?” and he would pull my hair and beat me with his hands. He went to the kitchen and took a knife and told me he would kill me, cut me up into little pieces, and put the little pieces of me in the cupboard By this time they owed me four months’ salary.
There are more and more innocent women going abroad, and planning to go. It is up to the women to care of themselves. The [Sri Lankan] government gets a good profit from us; they must take care of us. They must do more to protect us.”
Kumari Indunil, age 23, a former domestic worker in Kuwait
Qatar : The Plight of construction workers
This You Tube clip speaks for itself and needs nothing extra from me
So why is this happening?
Simple answer? Nobody cares!
- So far as the domestic employers in the Arab world are concerned there is probably little that can be done to combat the blatant racism that exists or to combat an arrogant attitude which views servants as property, and is simply a reflection of the values and attitudes of wealthy Kuwaiti, Saudi, Qatari and Emirati society. They simply don’t see what they are doing wrong. Their servants are theirs to dispose of as they wish without threat of law; they are not viewed as equal human beings in any sense. This clip sums it up.
- Migrant workers have no legal protection or legal rights in the countries where they work., plus they are usually unaware of what their rights are
- Some feel that the exporting governments do little to put pressure on the host governments to remedy the situation and do little to support them when they get into difficulties
So what needs to be done?
To begin with there is a need to collect data to improve understanding of:
- who is migrating
- from which villages
- what factors govern their decision to migrate
- what factors influence the choice of where they migrate
- what role recruitment agents playing the migration process; how do they persuade people to move? Are agents regulated, audited or even licensed?
Mapping the results allows NGOs and government organisations to focus initially on areas which are hotspots of out-migration to the Gulf and then to develop a better understanding of the migration process.
After that there are two approaches that could be considered.
- Reduce the flow of migrants to the Gulf
- Improve the conditions for those who still want to go
Reducing the Flow
- The obvious answer is to give people a positive reason NOT to migrate in search of work. Poverty is the driving force. Now the government would argue that only 8% of the population fall below the poverty line, but that line is drawn very low. Unemployment per se is not the issue. However, large numbers of Sri lankans earn less than 30,000 rupees per month; this is not a living wage, so what can be done? There are options:
- a realistic minimum living wage for paid employment enshrined in law would be a start; companies making big profits on the back of cheap labour may not like that idea..
- improved subsidies to farmers to raise their incomes; this could be paid for out of taxation if taxes were collected more efficiently.
- looking at ways of decentralising economic activities from the large cities like Colombo, improving infrastructure and road connections in order to spread economic growth. The governments Megalopolis plan could be a large step towards achieving this
2. Help local people to develop small scale businesses using cheap forms of credit and support from local NGO’s like Sevanatha and The Institute of Women in Management and the women’s co-operative bank
check out the links and you will see that what they do is:
- Equip leaders to negotiate with local authorities on behalf of their communities to improve their socio-economic conditions
- Develop local credit /savings bank operations run by and for the local community (often by local women) which can fund small businesses locally
- Support and encourage women to take a bigger role as community leaders or as small scale entrepreneurs.
What the above can do is help to create cohesive communities and develop viable economic alternatives to migration for local people.
3. Educate people to the stark realities of life on a construction site in Qatar or imprisoned in a home in Saudi Arabia : a negative reason not to go.
- set up groups led by victims to visit communities to tell their stories
- disseminate material to vulnerable communities on the realities of working conditions in the Gulf: it could be illustrated books, video material, victim narratives
- mobilise the press to tell these stories and place the spotlight.
AT the same time pressure must come from politicians, NGO’s the media and local people to force the authorities to ensure all agents are properly registered and licensed via the SLBFE for example. The issue of licences must be on the basis of conditions, which are stringent, open, and subject to scrutiny and enshrined in law. All agents should be required to lodge a bond with the authorities to be used to meet the costs of repatriation, and loss of earnings where migrants fall foul of local practices in the Gulf and need to return home.
Unlicensed agents must be prosecuted, along with corrupt government officials and police, as must those who knowingly mislead clients and do not exercise a duty of care. At present very few licensed agents are audited and few are ever prosecuted.
b. Addressing the situation in the Gulf States
The surest way to force a change in attitudes amongst employers in the Gulf is to dramatically cut down the flow of migrant labour. In that respect the SLBFE should be taking pro-active steps to warn migrants of the potential situations they could find themselves in.
In the meantime: there are issues to overcome:
- governments from source countries like that of Sri Lanka (India, Nepal, Pakistan also) need to become more pro-active in lobbying host governments to ensure their citizens are protected.
- the appalling nature of working conditions in the construction industry requires immediate attention. British companies engaged in building stadia in Qatar who appear to be indifferent at best to the plight of workers on the construction sites should be prosecuted under the Modern Slavery Act where they are failing to heed the warnings of the British Government over working conditions.
Steps that should be taken:
- The dismantling of the Kefala system immediately.
- Migrants must be allowed to retain their passports at all times.
- Migrant workers must be afforded through their visa status full rights as they would apply to resident nationals, enshrined in law.
- Workers need to be better educated in terms of their rights as migrant workers. Lack of awareness on legal procedures, lax law enforcement and the inability to communicate in the host country’s local languages all leave migrants vulnerable to exploitation.
- Employers whether companies or private households should be prosecuted where clear human rights abuses have occurred and must be made to honour the contracts they signed again under penalty of law.
- In the case of Qatar all countries engaged in qualifying for the next World Cup should threaten to boycott the event unless conditions change.
Within the Gulf States the embassies of the “exporting” countries should at least have staff fully trained to support abused victims. There should be a list of all addresses where migrants are living; regular checks made on them visits to ensure health and well being, wages are being paid, and they are not subject to mistreatment or abuse.
Key legal reforms are needed to ensure the most vulnerable workers, particularly domestic workers, who must be covered by basic labour law protection.
Steps must be taken to make certain victims are not further traumatized by arrest and detention if they run away to escape violence or exploitation.
Despite their contributions to their host countries, women migrants are not generally assured of basic protection. A simple 40-day mandatory training programme by the SLBFE does not simply address the concerns of those who seek foreign employment. Employers and recruiters alike must be held responsible for their role in exploiting the helpless workers.
What this needs, however, is co-operation between the sending countries and the host countries. However, if the host governments are unwilling to comply then governments like that of Sri Lanka should take steps to stop the flow of migrants to those countries, which they can do at the exit airports. Although painful in the short run tapping the economic potential of the poor at home, turning them into productive individuals through community and self help schemes could be a way forward and would spare many the fate that awaits them at the hands of employers in the Middle East.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7pkhFnwXkImeasures should be taken to challenge perceptions about migrant workers, in order to recognize their values and contribution to the development of the country.