Case stories of labour migrants from the north

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Over the last few days, this series has been exploring the issues surrounding labour migration from Sri Lanka, particularly the north. Here are the personal life stories behind the phenomenon. The people living in the post-war north, who feel impelled to migrate for socio-economic reasons. 

Selvaraja Krishnakumar (30)

He is the sole breadwinner. He went five years ago to Qatar where he does construction work, and remits Rs. 30,000 per month to the family. He returned only once for his mother’s funeral, in that time. He is the younger son with an elder brother and two sisters.

He supported the elder brother through university, telling him: “Please study, don’t turn out to be like me.” The brother graduated from the Jaffna Arts Faculty two years ago and has been unemployed since.

The younger brother’s earnings contributed to the elder sister’s dowry for her marriage and he is now earning for the younger sister as well. Once she is settled in marriage, he has indicated that he would like to come back and work as a wage labourer in Jaffna in the construction industry – for which he can earn Rs. 1,500 per day. As wage labour back home is sporadic and undependable however, his family is concerned.

The elderly father who was a wage labourer too says he would prefer for the son to stay on there even though he clearly doesn’t want to. “When I was a wage labourer, we couldn’t plan for the family’s needs. You never knew when the money was coming in. Now my son has a salaried job. He ought not to give that up.”

Nadaraja Sivakumar (25)

He is working as a plumber in Qatar and remits Rs. 30,000 a month. His father works as a mason in Jaffna and earns about the same amount. According to his mother, however, it’s a good thing her son is abroad, as people would not respect him back here for doing that kind of labour work.

The fact he is abroad gives them status, even though people know he is doing similar work there she says. “People appreciate young men being abroad and remitting money. If he does the same work here, he’d be called an uneducated labourer. That’s just the way it is. I am glad he is abroad in a Muslim country for a different reason. We can’t trust our youths not to turn to alcoholism or drugs here. He can’t access it over there, so he will be under control.”

The family of seven, including four other children still schooling, has seen a major change in their socio-economic situation too. They recently bought a plot of land and are in the process of building a house.

Says the mother, “We were once landless and houseless. We lived in makeshift cottages on others’ lands all our lives, as we continually displaced through the war. We couldn’t have taken loans to buy the land and build this house on my husband’s sporadic income, but managed to do so with our son’s stable income.”

Ehanathan Rajan (39)

He paid Rs. 120,000 to go to Doha through people he knew working there already, not agents. Once there, he was subcontracted out to a variety of different jobs and not paid for months – so he returned after a year and a half. He had to pay off the debts taken to go Doha from back here, as a wage labourer.

As the sole breadwinner and father of five children, he finds it extremely hard to support his family on his current sporadic income and plans to migrate again. “I tried to cut down on agents’ fees by going through people I knew. That didn’t work out. Next time, I’ll pay more to the agent to get me a solid job.”

Vidhya Gangatharan (36)

She fled domestic abuse at home from an alcoholic husband and ‘disappeared’ for a while, leaving two children in the care of her sister. She said her employers were kind, good people but the circumstances she described don’t corroborate.

“I worked for a family of 10, in Saudi Arabia. They treated me well, but they wouldn’t pay me monthly. Initially they paid every two to three months, then said they’d pay it as a lump sum when my contract ended. They also paid me only 600 Riyal (1 Saudi Riyal is approx Rs. 41) while the going rate for most Sri Lankan maids is 1,000 Riyal, citing my inexperience. It was my first job.

“I didn’t have time to sleep properly. For the five years I worked there, I slept only 1.5 hours a day. The store room they told me to sleep in was too hot – so I slept on the balcony. I had to look after six children including a baby, as well as cooking and cleaning. The madam would not let me rest for a minute. The house had eight rooms and four bathrooms that she made me clean several times a day.

“A year after I left, my mother passed away. They refused to let me come back for her funeral. They said it was illegal for me to return before my visa expired. The next year, my phone broke down and they didn’t replace it. My family could not contact me for the next two years. I couldn’t write to them either as I am illiterate. When I finally came home, they gave me my accumulated salary as a lump sum as promised. I was so happy. When I got here however, an educated relative did the math and told me I had been cheated of three years’ worth of salary.”

Komala Devi* (46)

She is currently in Saudi Arabia though not in direct contact with the family back home. She has indicated she might be in an abusive employment in a letter home some years ago. Her three children are being looked after by her 77-year-old mother-in-law, who roasts and sells peanuts for a living.

In the words of her mother-in-law: “My daughter in law was naïve. She borrowed a gold necklace and bangles for a friend to wear to a wedding, from another friend of hers. The woman she gave the jewellery to pawned it off instead. My daughter-in-law was caught in the middle between two families threatening her, those who gave the jewellery as well as those who took it.

“It caused a scandal in our neighbourhood which affected us all. My daughter-in-law was ostracised as a cheat, with both families spreading rumours about her. She went to the family she had given the jewellery to, begging for it back and got beaten up by them one day. Unable to bear the humiliation she ran away. My son was a fisherman. He couldn’t bear the rumours of his wife being an unchaste woman as well as a cheat who had abandoned her family, and committed suicide. I am looking after my three grandchildren now. All I want is my daughter in law to come back so that I can die in peace.

“She sent a letter some years ago, saying she was in Saudi Arabia without access to a phone and working under very difficult conditions, without regular pay. She said she needed to earn to pay off that lost jewellery and would not return until then.”

Nalaini Kandasamy (28)

She first left to Saudi Arabia as a 16-year-old in 2005. Most of her family had escaped the war to refugee camps in India, but her mother, herself and a younger brother stayed back as the brother was sickly.

They were living in Vavuniya where the LTTE were conscripting one child per family and the brother was too sickly, so she was targeted. The mother got an agent to forge documents increasing her age, and sent her to Saudi Arabia. She worked for some years there, fell in love with an Indian restaurant worker, got pregnant and had to return. The child is above five years of age now, so she plans to leave her in the care of her mother and take up employment in the Gulf again.

She says it has been a hard few years trying to survive in the meantime as she couldn’t get a stable job back here. The last job she tried was at a garment factory where she was told she looked overweight and thus unlikely to be fit enough to stand sewing at the sewing machines eight hours or more.

Subadra Nafiz (34) 

She has worked twice in Saudi, returned for a year, and is now heading out to Kuwait again. “I left when I was 17 the first time. I had to work hard round the clock looking after an extended family in a house spanning five storeys and managed to sleep only two hours a day.

“Other than for the hard work and the lack of sleep, there was no problem with the employment. I sent all the money I earned to my mother, and she used it all up so I had no savings when I returned. She’s my adopted mother with other children of her own, I am a war orphan. Then I married here and my husband didn’t have a regular income either so I left again to Saudi Arabia. He used my remittances to drink and married another woman without telling me. So I again returned home to nothing. I have to go again to earn.

“There are no opportunities for women to earn here. I have stayed and tried; insurance, leasing, marketing – those are the office work available here and I tried them all. They pay exploitative rates and our take home pay is cut often. Despite the exploitation abroad, at least I will manage to save something.”

Darshika Nadaraja (24)

She’s the second daughter of nine children. Her father was a farmer who developed chronic Kidney Disease and has been bedridden for five years now. So she went to Dubai as a domestic worker while the eldest sister got a job at a garment factory. The other children are still in school, with the youngest only nine years old.

She found work hard in Dubai and was able to remit only Rs. 15,000 which was what her sister was earning back home as well. She came home to try working at the garment factory too, but soon dropped out.

“We have to stand all day sewing, on a dusty factory floor and the dust would scrape our face and eyes. I couldn’t take it after a while. My salary as a domestic worker was low because that was my first job. I am going to go to Kuwait now where the agent has said I’d be paid more than Rs. 30,000 as an experienced worker.”

Sulojana Varathan (45)

She has worked in Saudi twice over the last four years, and is scheduled to leave for Kuwait next. Of her four children, two died/disappeared in war which she is still traumatised by.

“My elder son died in a LTTE claymore attack in 2006, and my younger son disappeared after being arrested for it 30 days later. After the claymore attack, in which my son and three other villagers died, the Army surrounded our village and got down a thalayatti (informant in a hood, who would indicate potential LTTE cadres with a nod of the head). My second son aged 17 had just returned from his A/Level exams. We were still in shock about the elder son’s death soon after which my mother died of grief too. The thalayatti nodded at my younger son and they dragged him away in a truck, kicking and screaming. At the Army camp, they denied taking him, I have been running from pillar to post trying to find him ever since.”

She broke down crying as she recalled this. Her husband, a carpenter descended into alcoholism after the loss of his sons, so she became the breadwinner and had to go earn abroad. Lack of sleep, too much work and not being paid regularly are complaints she had too. She is leaving for Kuwait next, where she hopes conditions will be better.

(Originally published in the Daily FT, Sri Lanka.)

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