Domestics Court Risks, Defying Age Bar
COLOMBO, Feb 5, 2011 (IPS) - Sri Lanka has raised the age requirement for women wanting to leave the country to work as domestics abroad, but recruitment agents say this won’t prevent younger women from joining the exodus.
By Feizal Samath
And not even the fate that befell Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, is enough of a deterrent.
Last week, the government announced it was revising the rule to allow only women over 21 years of age to work abroad as domestics. The limit was previously 18 years. Officials say lack of experience is likely to get younger women into trouble.
"When we send young women, often just out of school, they have many problems and run away after three months to the Sri Lankan embassy unable to cope with the situation," said R.K. Ruhunuge, additional general manager at the state-owned Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLFBE).
"This (new age bar) will reduce the number of runaways," he added.
But the new rule doesn’t prevent 18-year-olds from seeking other employment overseas as either skilled or semi-skilled workers. Domestic work is considered an unskilled profession.
Recruitment agents, however, say young girls - whose only prospects abroad are jobs as maids - will merely resort to falsifying papers showing they are much older than they really are.
Newspapers have persistently blamed recruitment agents for securing passports with bogus information on behalf of their clients, a charge agents have repeatedly rejected.
"It is the individual who brings such a passport and presents it to the agent. For all purposes it is a genuine and legal passport, as it’s issued by the Immigration and Emigration Department, but on bogus documents like birth certificates. So how can we be blamed for this?" asked Faizer Mackeen, secretary of the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agents (ALFEA).
Mackeen believes young women like Rizana Nafeek will continue to lie about their age and provide bogus documents to get a passport.
In June 2007, Nafeek was sentenced to death by a Saudi court after she was found guilty of murdering a four-month-old infant in her care.
Nafeek confessed to the crime but later said she was forced to do so by the police and that the infant had accidentally choked. Nafeek was 17 when she first entered Saudi Arabia but her passport showed she was six years older.
In December, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia suspended the death sentence following a request for amnesty by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The appeal against the verdict continues in court.
At least 1.8 million Sri Lankans work abroad, more than half of them women employed as domestics in the Middle East, quite a few aged around 18, or just older.
SLFBE’s Ruhunuge says the government is encouraging the migration of professional and skilled workers, rather than unskilled workers like domestics.
"Professional and skilled workers earn more and the foreign exchange component to the country is also much higher," he said.
Foreign exchange earnings from migrant workers are expected to reach 4 billion dollars for 2010 from 3.3 billion in 2009. The migrant workers sector is Sri Lanka’s highest foreign exchange earner, followed by garments.
But migrant workers’ rights groups are calling for better safeguards and protection of workers abroad rather than depriving them a chance to earn a living. "Our position is that you can’t stop women from traveling abroad on the job. That’s a human right. But we have for many years urged the government to provide better training and have bilateral agreements with labour-receiving countries to ensure better working standards," said Viola Perera, convener of Sri Lanka’s Action Network for Migrant Workers (ACTFORM).
Common problems domestic workers face abroad include non-payment of contracted wages, and physical and sexual harassment.
She said they were hoping to persuade the authorities to enforce the Sri Lanka Labour Migration Policy introduced in October 2008. This policy, prepared by all stakeholders, says the state is responsible for protecting migrant workers and their families under the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families.
"This is a policy with good intentions but there is no legal obligation on the government to enforce it," Perera said, adding that if such a policy has legal authority, cases like Nafeek’s would not have happened.
Rights groups have repeatedly blamed recruitment agents for helping migrant workers prepare bogus birth certificates to secure a passport. But recruitment agents say they are often blamed whenever workers have problems, when victims themselves must accept responsibility.
Wijeya Undupitiya, a former computer systems analyst who set up a recruiting office 20 years ago, says he often sees women coming into his office saying "happily" that they had gotten their passports using forged papers.
"They don’t think it is wrong and illegal," he said.
Undupitiya cited the recent case of an 18-year-old boy who was arrested for possessing a forged passport. It was the boy’s mother who got him a job at a garments factory in Mauritius where she had worked for many years. But since the recruitment age was 20 years, the boy resorted to bribing an officer at the Immigration Department to falsify his date of birth, getting the job processing done through Undupitiya’s agency.
"I didn’t know it was a passport obtained under false pretences. In fact I have written to the Immigration Commissioner-General to clarify what a forged passport is because the passport is genuine as it’s issued by the department," he said. "There are many cases where migrant workers produce passports which are legally valid but secured by bribing someone at the department to insert a false date of birth."