Gulf jobs have steep social price
By Feizal Samath
AMUNICHCHIYA, Sri Lanka - The dirt road leading to this hamlet in north-central Sri Lanka winds past lush green paddy farms. Brightly coloured lilies sprout along a big water tank by the roadside. Children prance in the water while a group of happily chatting, elderly women wash clothes beside the tank. Men pedal their way home on rickety bicycles on the road where a motor vehicle is a rare sight.
But look closer and there is something missing from this idyllic rural setting. Amunichchiya, some 200 kilometers from the Sri Lankan capital, is a village with very few young or middle-aged women. Most of them are in a faraway land, working as domestic workers or in other unskilled, low-paid jobs. In recent years, most of Amunichchiya's young women have gone to Gulf nations with almost all the about 135 families having a female member abroad.
The migration began after a crash in the price of chillies that once grew in abundance on the typical half-hectare farm owned by the average family. The cash crop was the main source of income. Luckily for the villagers, recruitment agents on the lookout for domestic workers for affluent Gulf households, trooped into the village offering loans to families to help pay agent fees and buy air tickets.
''Most of our young women are abroad toiling for the family,'' says 26-year-old Sriya Kanthi, who herself went to the Gulf in 1997 and left her two small children behind with her mother. She returned last year, but all the money she sent back every month was used up in rebuilding the family house and bringing up her children. ''I just have a few thousands left,'' she says.
Sriya's story, like that of Amunichchiya, is repeated in thousands of Sri Lankan villages which have lost a large bulk of their womenfolk to jobs in the Gulf.
But it is not all bad. The money sent home by these women is a big help to their families and has swelled the nation's foreign exchange reserves. The migrants earn typically between 6,000 to 9,000 rupees ($125) per month. According to estimates by the state-run Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), Sri Lankans living abroad sent home more than $1 billion last year. Most of this came from the Gulf nations, where six out of 10 Sri Lankan workers are women from the countryside.
More than 1 million Sri Lankans work abroad in the Gulf and Asian nations. In fact, farming is no longer the main source of income for the Sri Lankan countryside, because a large part of this now comes from remittances from the Gulf. But not all this money is wisely spent as Sriya's story shows. Like many Sri Lankan villages where the young women have gone abroad to earn a living, Amunichchiya still has dirt tracks for roads. The only school in the village is an old building, badly in need of repair.
Uchitha Jayampathy of Amunichchiya says the women return home laden with fancy household goods, expensive clothes and jewellery, but no savings. ''After some time, the money runs out and the goods are sold,'' says the 30-year-old woman who chose not to travel abroad.
The easy flow of money from abroad has also made the menfolk lazy, she says. The farmer-husbands of the Amunichchiya women abroad now spend their time sleeping and drinking, while the rice fields lie unattended.
Colombo-based officials in Sri Lanka's foreign migration regulation authority agree. According to L K Ruhunugge, deputy general manager of the SLBFE, unlike Sri Lankan men abroad, the women in the Gulf send the bulk of their earnings back home. But the husbands generally blow their wives' money on liquor and other non-essential things. ''As a result, when the woman returns, there are no savings to fall back on,'' he points out, adding that it is necessary to educate husbands in the savings habit.
The migration of the women has also left behind social problems - children without mothers and in some cases even broken up families. The fact that many young men in the village are in the army means that the children are brought up by grandparents. Infants left behind by the women fail to recognize their mothers when they return. ''My elder son still calls me 'aunty' and prefers to be with the grandparents,'' says Sriya, whose husband is a soldier. At least 30 men of Amunichchiya are in the army or the navy. So far, four families have broken up with the man or the woman leaving their homes to move in with new partners.
''There are quite a few (women abroad) who have not returned even for the marriage of a son or daughter,'' says Sriya.
Even the government is worried. ''The money earned by mothers working in foreign countries will in no way compensate for the calamities that follow due to their long term separation from their homes,'' Sri Lanka's Minister of Women's Affairs Hema Ratnayake was quoted as saying in published reports. Warning of ''irreparable'' psychological damage to the children, the minister advised women seeking foreign jobs to ''think not twice, but thrice before leaving their young ones''.
Some are listening. Jayampathy, whose husband works in a ceramics factory, does not want to go abroad. ''I will somehow manage here,'' she says, adding that most village women working abroad are careless with their earnings. ''They rarely deposit money in a bank and earn a monthly income,'' she explains.
S Karunawathi, an unmarried 27-year-old woman, says her parents will not send her abroad because of the stories they hear. ''It's better to eat salt and rice, rather than leave the village,'' she asserts. Village women have heard of Sri Lankan women being beaten or sexually abused by their overseas employers and not being paid wages. However, Malsiri Dias at the Colombo-based Center for Women's Research says that less than a tenth of Sri Lankan women working abroad face such problems which ''tend to get highlighted in the press''.
But David Soysa, of the Migrant Services Center run by a trade union, says his agency discourages women seeking domestic overseas jobs as there are no safeguards against harassment and non-payment of salaries. Unlike the Philippines, Sri Lanka does not have bilateral agreements with Gulf nations to protect its workers, he points out. ''We have contractual obligations between the Sri Lankan government and employers in 10 labor-intensive countries, but these contracts are worthless as employers cannot be prosecuted there for any violation of the contracts,'' he explains.
The SLBFE is the main regulator of overseas migration and supervizes all private agencies hiring for foreign employers. Under compulsory job contracts between the bureau of foreign employment, the local recruiting agency and the employer, all Sri Lankans hired overseas are entitled to a minimum monthly wage of $130. The workers also get a free insurance scheme, free air tickets in case they have lost all money and need to be repatriated.
According to latest figures, the government - through the SLBFE - had paid about $150 million in compensation to nearly 70,000 Sri Lankans who lost their jobs abroad. A large number of these were displaced by Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War.
Ruhunugge of the bureau of foreign employment says there have been cases of middlemen duping women seeking overseas work. Although registered employment agencies charge the prescribed amount of 5,200 rupees (about $72) per person, middlemen are known to ask for several times this amount, he says.
(Inter Press Service)