• Wednesday, September 3, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    SRI LANKA: Domestics Court Risks, Defying Age Bar

    By Feizal Samath
    COLOMBO, Feb 5 (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.

    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."

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