The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has made a strong plea to the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to extend labour laws to migrant domestic workers who are mostly from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Indonesia.
In its latest report on Sri Lankan migrant domestics in West Asia, entitled "Exported and Exposed" released on Wednesday, the HRW has asked the Sri Lankan government to put diplomatic pressure on the erring West Asian countries, give better counselor services to the victimized domestics and prevent recruiting agents from exploiting the poor rural women and foisting unfair terms of employment on them.
The HRW acknowledges that the Sri Lankan government has regulatory mechanisms in place, but these are not effective. Colombo tends to yield to the West Asian countries and job agents, as it fears competition from Filipino and Indonesian domestics. The government is afraid of losing the West Asian domestics' market because the money involved is huge.
In 2006 for example, Sri Lankans working abroad, mostly as unskilled labour, sent back US$ 2.33 billion, and this was US$ 536 million more than what the island received as foreign aid and foreign direct investment combined.
Ninety seven percent of the 660,000 Sri Lankan women employed abroad are working as domestics in West Asia, and 87% of these are in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the UAE.
Abused and neglected
But these women do not have any protection in terms wages and other conditions of work. They are poorly paid slaves toiling day and night and putting up with beatings and physical abuse including rape and molestation. The Sri Lankan government itself acknowledges that every day, at least 50 female workers from West Asia arrive in Colombo "in distress".
Sure, migrant domestics manage to build houses and educate their children in their villages and slums back home – small dreams they would never have fulfilled if they had not gone abroad to toil. But they also pay a heavy price in terms their own dignity and health, HRW points out.
75% of the migrants told HRW that they had suffered heavy losses in meeting the demands of the recruiting agents, and the unauthorized sub-agents. The payments extracted from the workers were three times the legitimate fees.
About 20% of the workers interviewed said that they did not get their full salaries. Many got only 50% of their dues. Some of them were not paid for months or even years. The wages are very low – a fifth of the minimum wage in the private sector. Sri Lankan domestics got lower wages than Filipino or even Indonesian workers. Buddhists and Hindus got less than the Muslims.
20% of the domestics said that they had suffered physical abuse by their employers and their sons.13% claimed that they had been sexually assaulted. Deprivation of food and independent living accommodation were common complaints. Many, especially in Saudi Arabia, were locked in the house when the owners went out. They could not go out unaccompanied. With the confiscation of passports by the employers, the suffering workers could not escape. They could not change the employer either. And if they went to the police, the latter tended to take the side of the Arab employer.