Labour migrant – Government relations as seen in Vavuniya

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There is a spiking trend in women from war affected areas in the Northern Province migrating to the Gulf and other countries as housemaids – well behind the rest of the country.  Complaints regularly crop up about the Government barring them from emigrating on this end, or not doing enough to repatriate them should they need help, from abroad.

I spent a few days at the Vavuniya Divisional Secretariat, to observe procedures on both the Government’s and the migrants’ sides as to how they observed government protocol. 

Regulations pertaining to women labour migrants

“There are a far more regulations pertaining to women than for men, when it comes to migrating abroad for labour work,” said Vavuniya Assistant Divisional Secretary Sarathanjali Manoharan. “As per government regulations, women going abroad for work should:

  • Obtain a certification of residence as well as a character certificate from their respective Grama Niladaris.
  • Register a form outlining the condition of their house; whether it has toilets, doors, windows (for the safety of the children left behind) which should be signed by their husbands or the guardians in whose care they leave their children.
  • Submit to multiple home visits and reports on the situation of the children and family back home, by Government field officers – including Development Officers, Women Development Officers, Child Rights Promotion Officers, Early Childhood Rights Promotion Officers and Midwives.”

As is well known in Sri Lanka, the women also cannot leave if any of their children are under five years of age. None of these rules apply to the men. The onus of childcare, and making alternative arrangement for childcare, is primarily on the women, not only in society’s view but also as per our Government.

In return, it is the Government’s obligation to spring into action to follow up on the welfare of children left in the care of fathers or guardians, which it does do – although there are bureaucratic delays in the system.

“We keep a cupboard stocked with new clothes and other essentials, like combs and soaps, in this Secretariat, out of our personal funds, and donations we raised from relations and friends,” said Manoharan. It’s not a Government requirement to do so but staff at the Secretariat Office felt the need to pool their own resources to fill the gap.

“If, for whatever reason, the flow of money stops from the migrant women – as frequently happens when employers stop paying arbitrarily – the guardians and even the fathers bring the children to the Secretariat Office here and tell us to take care of them, that they can’t anymore,” said Manoharan. “Just a few days ago, three such children were left with us by guardians who said the mother had stopped sending money. They were dressed in rags, covered in sores, and were obviously malnourished, looking far smaller and younger than their actual ages. This is why we stock the cupboard with clothes and other essentials.  It takes time to arrange homes for the children through bureaucratic procedure – thus, we pocket out from our personal funds to fill the gap.”

She added, “Children being uncared for, or abandoned, is quite common among migrant families. Many teachers here will tell you that they brush students’ teeth, and even bathe them at school, because they come to school unwashed and obviously uncared for. Some teachers go from house to house, collecting the children for school, as otherwise their guardians – usually their close relatives – try to keep them home to do their housework.”

Socio-cultural context

According to a counsellor attached to the Secretariat, emotional, physical, and sexual abuses abound among the children of migrant families. “The system is skewed for women, rather than men, to emigrate from our poorest households. The Gulf countries extend Rs. 200,000 to women as a cash gift, to incentivise them to come work as housemaids there, whereas men have to pay that amount to go themselves. In poorer households where men cannot afford to go, therefore, they abuse their women to go instead. Back here, the men get used to the remittances and often descend into alcoholism, and into not being productive workers themselves.”

She further added, “Many of these migrants draw from the internally displaced by war segments of the community, who have been resettled without roots in Vavuniya. They are traditionally landless, used to sporadic wage labour, and do not have a kin system to hold them together. They face many vulnerabilities, including a system of not bothering to register their marriages. Thus, a wife with children would often go abroad and send regular remittances for a number of years, and would likely return to discover that her husband has married one or two or more other women. Neither she nor any of the other women would have marriage certificates to seek redress from authorities.”

The children, the counsellor said, are particularly vulnerable. “Just today, I had to deal with the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl by a 35 year old father of two. Children of such homes are starved for attention and affection, and as such often fall prey to cases of statutory rape. They tend to become school dropouts, elope and marry young without any idea of how to fend for themselves, become prey to sexual predators, or are abused by their guardians to do domestic labour at home, on top of physical and emotional abuse. We try to caution the women migrants about all these issues – but many of them face severe restrictions and trauma at home and in the community, and are thus desperate to leave.”

A young woman (28), mother to a six year old daughter, came into the Secretariat to notify a Development Officer of her impending migration to Saudi Arabia. Had her daughter been under five, she would not have been allowed to go. Her husband, a mason, had abandoned the family, she said. Men who abandon their families in these regions are not called upon culturally to provide for their children. The women accept that it is their primary responsibility. In the few instances they do take the estranged husbands to court, the court finds it difficult to settle adequate child care payments, as it is dependent on the man’s wage labour. Thus even if a sum is settled, usually in the range of Rs.3000 – 4000, the men easily abscond on payments, claiming they didn’t earn enough to make the payments. Yet, such husbands’ signatures would also be required for the wife to go abroad. The reverse does not apply. Husbands don’t need signatures from their wives to go abroad, or indeed to abandon all responsibility.

In the above case, after quizzing the woman about her circumstances and the fact that her young child would be left in the care of a relative to whom she would have to remit money, the Development Officer asked her if she would stay if alternate employment could be found for her in her hometown. The answer was an emphatic, “No, I want to leave.”

Why?“Employers don’t pay salaries like that here. They might offer the same salaries (Rs.15-20,000) but then they always deduct and give nominal sums. Also, as a single woman, I am often castigated as sexually licentious, for just coming out of my home to work.”

The officer asked her, “You do know that that situation is not likely to be different if you go to Saudi Arabia?”

“Yes, but at least over there, I won’t have to hear the constant aspersions on my character as I do here. I absolutely need to leave for my own peace of mind. And for better, stable pay. I can’t survive here.”

After she left, the Development Officer turned to me and explained, “I know of several Government officers who have offered these women the same pay as their remittances, to do the same work in our homes here. They refuse. They are all desperate to go to the Gulf. There are several reasons, including the rigid control and constant censure of women here, as well as stigma attached to being domestic workers over here. They do not feel respected.

“Yet, there is real danger of facing worse than lack of respect in employment in the Gulf – but agents here have sold them a pipe dream of riches and being able to work in a foreign country.

On top of all the harassment they face over there, they return to poverty here again because all their earnings have gone into relatives’ accounts and were used up by them. If the Gulf employers would at least agree to deposit payment in two different accounts, one for the woman herself, one for her family / guardians of her children, this could be mitigated, but most employers, due to the cost of remitting funds, refuse to do so.”

The effect thereby is that even if experienced workers earn and remit more than is necessary for the families back home to live on, those families enjoy the benefits and the workers return home to nothing. The Development Officer said, “I am overseeing a case currently where a lady exhausted herself working as a cook for a restaurant – her employers owned a restaurant and made her work both there as well as in their home. They paid her slightly more therefore. She was remitting Rs. 25,000 a month. Yet she has returned home to nothing after 10 years abroad. She was sending the money to her sister in whose care she had left her only son, now 14. The sister’s husband has bought a plot of land with her money but refused to hand it over to her.”

The poor woman is also illiterate and has no legal recourse open to her.  She came to the Secretariat to complain. The Development Officer had to step in to renegotiate a deal with the woman’s brother-in-law. “She came looking forward to rest, but is going to go to Saudi Arabia again soon as she has nothing to live on here. I sternly negotiated with the sister’s family to look after the boy for free over the next few years, as his mother sent more money than required over the last 10 years. She needs to earn for herself now, to be able to retire with savings to take care of herself. They were not happy about that arrangement but have reluctantly agreed. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the case, to see they don’t mistreat the boy.”

Development Officers’ home visits

On one day of observation, I tailed the Development Officers on their home visits to see them in action in the field. Once a woman notifies the government that she is leaving, multiple officers will pay visits to her home to gauge her family situation, and whether the children would have adequate care in her absence.

“We never tell them in advance we are coming,” explained one of the officers. “People tend to lie about not having children under five, or of the availability of adequate alternate arrangements to take care of them in the mother’s absence. So we do surprise checks on them.”

“As newly resettled people in these parts with no kinship ties with each other, they can easily get cheated as they don’t know each other,” explained another. “I caught one man, who ‘married’ three different women and convinced all of them to go abroad and send him their remittances. None of the women knew about each other. I was suspicious the second time he came to the secretariat with a different woman as his wife, and nabbed him when he did it the third time. He was 28 and doing nothing but living off these remittances.”

It was quite an eye-opening experience tracing the about-to-emigrate women to their homes. Addresses were not straightforward with street names and numbers. They were ‘the house of Mr. A.B three lanes past the village grocery shop, turn left at the Y pond.’

No one appeared to know each other’s names at the village, especially official given names. They are diverse, internally displaced people, settled over the last few decades in Vavuniya. The about-to-migrate woman we were tracing had given her father’s name, which no-one in the area had heard of. After detouring along all the winding dirt roads adjoining the said pond without success, we gave up on that particular address and moved on to others on the list, across other dry and dusty villages, all with winding dirt roads leading to addresses no one could easily identify.

The homes of the potential emigrants were either thatched huts or half-built cement houses. “I managed to build thus far using my remittances. Now I need to go again to finish it,” said Premila (32) who has worked in the Gulf from the age of 18, and has a half-built cement house. She explained her circumstances: “My father died by shell fire in war time, as did two of my nine siblings. To earn then, I helped my mother make snacks to sell before going to school. I would be up at 3.00 am everyday so work conditions in Saudi are not new to me.”

Hard work and limited sleep might not be new to her, yet she still finds certain employers in the Gulf hard to deal with. “The viciousness of some employers can be hard to take. I have not been beaten, but they have spat on my face, made me sleep on the floor in hot store-rooms without a fan for the two-three hours of sleep they allowed me, and been generally unkind and cruel.

“They teach their children to be like that too. If ever a child becomes friendly with us, they will yell at the child, ‘Hey, why are you being friendly with the Sri Lanki?’  They call all maids there, no matter which country we originate from, Sri Lankis, and use it as a pejorative term. In the last house I worked for, one of the children was particularly vicious. He would deliberately urinate into cupboards I had stacked with clean, folded clothes, into my mopping bucket as I was mopping, and on the mopped floor after I had mopped, just to make more work for me. The adults would watch on smiling. I couldn’t even reprove the child (aged 10) mildly, for fear they would slap me. He was always carrying tales about me to his mother, because he enjoyed seeing her yell at me. Once he told her I had touched him sexually. I was petrified. Imagine getting a charge like that against you in Saudi Arabia? Luckily she didn’t pay heed to that particular accusation. I have worked in Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia so far. Saudi Arabia is one of the worst places to work in terms of how employers treat us, so I waited and managed to get a job in Kuwait for my next assignment.”

Most of the contracts of employment to the Gulf countries are for two-year periods, at the end of which the women can come back. The employers often request them to return after taking a break, but many of the women keep moving on to other employers in the hopes of better working conditions. And, as they made clear repeatedly, their threshold for ‘good working conditions’ are abysmally low – to not be assaulted physically, emotionally or sexually. To be paid an abysmally small amount of $150 – 200, to send home.

They are prepared for the hard work, the lack of a personal life, lack of holidays or time off, lack of an adequate space to sleep in, and even lack of enough time to sleep. They know about these terrible work conditions. They emigrate with mental anxiety, anticipating far worse. Having been conditioned by the local media to think it would be the norm to have nails driven into them or be actively raped, they come away feeling lucky if inadequate sleep and emotional abuse was all they had to deal with. The context of their social and economic situation in Sri Lanka leaves them little alternative.

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

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