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 Post subject: Maid In Sri Lanka, Stranded in the Middle East
 Post Posted: Thu Jul 28, 2005 7:08 am 
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Maid In Sri Lanka, Stranded in the Middle East

Champika Liyanaarachchi
02 October 2003

COLOMBO, Oct 2 (OneWorld) - While thousands of Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East, mainly housemaids, who are victims of abuse and exploitation by employers, wait to return home, the government is yet to sign an employment agreement with any of the countries in this region.

According to statistics available with the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), the number of stranded workers during the first eight months of this year, totalled 1492, up from 1327 in 2002.

About 85 percent of them left their workplaces due to physical harassment or non-payment of salary.

While the largest number of non-skilled Sri Lankans work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Lebanon, the government has so far signed an employment agreement only with Malaysia.

In contrast with just 10,000 Sri Lankans working in Malaysia, according to SLBFE, about 420,000 Sri Lankans work in Saudi Arabia, followed by 180,000 in Kuwait.

The UAE employs 150,000 workers and Lebanon employs 80,000, while there are 40,000 each in Jordan and Qatar.

In the absence of bilateral agreements with West Asian countries, the government is spending alot of money to bring back stranded foreign employment seekers sheltering in Sri Lankan missions there.

In just three years, the SLBFE has spent US $3.5 million to repatriate those stranded.

Says President of the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) Suraj Dandeniya, "Its preposterous that the government is spending so much money while it has completely downplayed the importance of signing agreements with these countries. That would have forced employers to be more responsible."

He adds that the government's failure to sign bilateral agreements with these countries is a major impediment in promoting employment.

Complains Dandeniya, "The government uses flimsy excuses to postpone the signing of these agreements. Its failure to sign a MoU with these countries has made migrant employees vulnerable to harassment and ill treatment by employers."

Foreign remittance from migrant workers, particularly housemaids, remains the country's largest single net foreign exchange earner.

Interestingly, foreign employment placements rose by about 20,000 from 184,000 in 2001 to about 204,000 in 2002 - the highest annual increase in the recent past. Normalization of air travel facilities and promotional campaigns by private job agents and government institutions contributed to the spurt.

Most of those seeking jobs abroad happen to be women, amounting to 65 percent of the total. Housemaids comprise 53 percent of this figure.

Remarks Kamal Tillekaratne, who recently returned from the UAE where he was working as a supervisor in a private firm for the past 13 years, "Things have improved over the years, but our Ministry of Labor and Employment does not render enough assistance to stranded house maids and other employees."

He adds that, "Even labor welfare officers become helpless when dealing with employers, due to the latter's high handed attitude."

Tillekaratne feels bilateral agreements between the two countries are the only remedy for this situation.

Agrees Lalith Bopitiya, Acting Manager of the SLBFE, "Apart from the agreements we have also advised embassies to blacklist foreign employment agencies against which there are regular complaints. We have already compiled such lists and local agencies have been warned not to accept offers from them."

The most common grievance is low salaries, with a sizeable percentage of maids earning less than what they were promised earlier. While the government's minimum salary scale for a housemaid stands at US $125, a large percentage earn only US $100, most of which is spent on disputes.

Says Dandeniya, "The SLBFE should tell these workers the truth, that they will get only US $100. Deceiving people just to lure them to go abroad has created big problems."

Take the case of S.A. Imran, 29, who went to Kuwait in 2001 through a registered job agency in Sri Lanka.

He was employed as a private driver, but was paid only for the first two months. The hapless man worked another eight months expecting to be paid, but his employer refused to do so.

Finally, in March 2002, Imran approached the Sri Lankan embassy in Kuwait, where he was given accommodation in a suffocating hall, crammed with 300 other workers.

Recalls Imran with a shudder, " The majority of inmates were housemaids, some of whom were suffering from various diseases. It was like hell."

Imran lived there for three weeks waiting to come back to Sri Lanka. Finally he had to beg one of his friends working there to pay his return fare.

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