Sri Lankan domestic workers in Malaysia

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More than 80% of our Sri Lankan emigrant labour are absorbed by the Gulf countries, according to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment; 34% of these are women, mostly domestic workers who get paid subsistence level salaries of Rs. 20-30,000 over there.

As I went about interviewing various potential labour migrants, migrants’ families as well as migrant returnees from the Northern Provinces of Jaffna and Vavuniya – a recurring theme kept coming up. “If only we could afford to go work in Malaysia or Singapore. Those countries pay Rs. 50-60,000 for the same work, and treat women who go there so much better.

“While the Gulf countries give us a Rs. 200,000 cash bonus paid in advance to get us to come there though, we have to pay as much to the agents to go to Malaysia/Singapore. Thus only the better off women in our midst are able to go to those countries.”

I didn’t meet any families with women migrant workers to these destination countries outside the Gulf, in my research through several villages in the north. Nevertheless they do exist and are envied by the others as having struck gold in the domestic labour migration stakes:

  • “They are allowed one day off per week there, can you imagine?”
  •  “They get a room and even a bed to sleep on.” 
  •  “They are allowed to sleep up to six hours a day.” 
  •  “Families in Malaysia and Singapore are small nuclear families unlike in the Gulf countries, so there isn’t that much work to do.”
  •  “Employers in those countries are kinder too. They are allowed to relax if they finish all their work, and can even watch TV.”

In short, Malaysia and Singapore are the aspirational Shangri-La of potential migrant domestic workers in the worst poverty-ridden areas of the war-affected north.

As for the Gulf, many of them go fully expecting to be tortured with nails and hot irons, and come back sighing with relief (in the majority of cases I personally interviewed) of ‘only being spat on,’ cursed at, not being allowed to sleep more than two to three hours, and not having an adequate place or bedding to sleep on.

I travelled to both Malaysia and Singapore in November to see how our migrants fared there.

They do appear to be faring better than in the Gulf, though that is not saying much.

“Malaysia has a chronic problem with ill-treating migrant labour, especially domestic workers who are largely unregulated by labour laws due to falling into the ‘casual sector’ of employment,” says Adrian Periera, Executive Director at North-South initiative, an NGO in Malaysia that works for migrants’ rights.

“Domestic workers are mentioned in our labour laws but are exempt from several clauses including minimum wages or mandatory holidays. Our Government does have guidelines for employers of foreign domestic workers – but those are merely guidelines and thus not enforceable. It is left to the discretion of the employer to be fair or not.”

Most of the abuse he says is through unreasonably long hours of work and emotional abuse rather than physical. “Nevertheless, we do have extreme cases cropping up of burnings with hot irons, boiling water scalding, sexual and physical abuse, not being allowed enough sleep or food and so on.

“Due to this, Cambodia has stopped sending domestic workers to Malaysia over the last few years. Indonesia has put a moratorium, while Philippines and Indian embassies run shelters for their runaway workers to seek refuge.”

Philippines according to Pereira is a proactive country in terms of taking care of its workers’ rights. “Their embassy blacklists shady agents so that their workers do not get unduly exploited, The Filipino workers too are more organised and aware of their basic rights. They demand reasonable working hours and at least one day off per week – so they get it. Domestic workers of every other nationality however, work round the clock here.”

Many of the sending countries have proactive embassies working to ensure their workers’ rights apparently, though their scales of proactivity differ. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are the least effective in this regard according to the NGOs I interviewed there.

Over two weeks in Malaysia, I tried several times to call the Sri Lankan High Commission without success. Emails sent to their labour consul went unanswered.  One email was acknowledged weeks later, with no follow-up answers to my questions on how they were working to ensure migrants’ rights.

On 16 November, I met up with Khadijah Shamsul, Program Director at Migrant88 Malaysia, an NGO that works for migrants’ rights and welbeing, and her assistant Rhoshan.

They were helping me meet a Sri Lankan domestic worker to interview – among the multitudes of domestic workers in Malaysia, only a couple of thousand are Sri Lankan, and thus hard to find.

While waiting for Latha* (33), the Sri Lankan domestic worker who had reached out to Migrant88 and been helped by them, to show up, I quizzed Khadijah on the common challenges such workers faced.

Apart from harassment in the homes they work in she says, they are also actively harassed by Malaysian police outside, in hopes of bribes to be left alone. “The bribe could be as low as RM 6 (RM 1 is approximately Rs .40). The corrupt police ideally want up to RM 500, but they can’t get that much from the poorer workers who earn only RM 1000 a month. Often times if they don’t get the bribe they wanted, they arbitrarily lock up the workers, even those who can prove they are here legally. Part of Migrant88’s work is to visit police stations regularly to help release such detainees. Rhoshan and I both do that on a regular basis,” says Khadijah.

And how do the police treat them, when they go to the police station, I ask them. They look at each other and laugh. “It depends on whether your question is directed to me or to her,” says Rhoshan.

Oh? Is there a difference in treatment meted out to NGO workers according to their gender? “No, there is preferential treatment according to our racial background. I am far more privileged as I am from the majority race in comparison to Rhoshan, despite generations of his family staying in Malaysia,” says Khadijah.

At this point, a young Sri Lankan woman wearing a pottu walks up to our table. I assume she is Tamil because of the pottu but she turns out to be Sinhalese and from Ratnapura. “Migrants like us are harassed on the streets, we can’t go out easily,” she explains. “Since there is an ethnic Tamil Sri Lankan population who are citizens here, passing for them can keep us out of trouble.”

She came to Malaysia in 2015 she says via an agent to whom she paid Rs. 180,000.

Did she know the Gulf countries would pay her Rs. 200,000 to go there instead?

“Yes, but can you imagine the horror of going to the Gulf? They cut people’s limbs there, drive nails into their bodies, torture them with hot irons. It’s too horrific to think of. I paid to come to a better country.”

So how has Malaysia been treating her? Not very well.

“The agent cheated me. I was working at a communication store in Ratnapura for Rs. 12,000 a month which was not sustainable to me as a single mother, supporting also my mother and two younger sisters in school. My father used to work as a house-painter and died a few years ago. I married a mason, had a child with him but he left me, and sought a divorce.

“I needed to come abroad to work, I studied up to A/Levels and aspired to an office job. My agent in Galle promised me a receptionist post at a hotel here, for which I would be paid RM 4,000. Instead I ended up as a cleaner at Berjaya Hotel and was not paid for months. They put us up in a dirty house without even basic facilities like a fan, and housed 24 of us Sri Lankans there.

“The food we were given to eat was inadequate and terrible, our sleeping conditions even worse, and we had to work as cleaners at the hotel which we had not signed up for. When I complained about not receiving pay for over two months since arriving, they sent goons to beat me up. So one day, I ran away from that place and ended up on the streets.”

Latha appeared to believe it was the well-known hotel management treating her thus, but according to Khadijah, this was a case of a human trafficking syndicate subcontracting to valid employers. “A lot of employers here prefer agents to subcontract workers from, in order to overcome immigration bureaucracy. The many corruptions in the government system facilitate syndicates like these to thrive.”

Thus there is an underground of slave labour as well as trafficked, forced prostitution in Malaysia which authorities do little to crack down on. And the migrants caught in the system have little avenue of escape, are in face penalised further by the authorities and police, and would be completely helpless if not for a few NGOs like Migrant88 and North-South initiative.

The agents lock up migrant workers’ passports on arrival. Thus when workers like Latha escape to the streets, they become ‘undocumented workers,’ a very dangerous position to be in.

Latha was subsequently picked up by a Malaysian lady and taken into her home from where she apparently tried to convince Latha to go into sex work. When Latha refused, she got her a job for a Malaysian man living in a three-storey building by himself. Latha says she was not raped but her new employer tried to break down the door to her room several times – so she ran away again.

She knew of no avenues of help and ended up on the streets again. Asked if she had tried contacting the Sri Lankan High Commission, she is scornful. “No, I never tried. One of my friends did try and got no response. They do nothing.”

She was picked up by the police three times and was harassed for not having her passport and work permit on her, she says. The documents were still with the agents. She ultimately paid RM 2,000 to retrieve them. She is currently working at a job she is happy with, as a cleaner for a company working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. she says but she is worried that her work permit is expiring in December, just when she has settled into a stable job and is able to remit money for her family’s upkeep in Sri Lanka.

“I look forward to seeing my young son in Sri Lanka again, but I absolutely need to come back here to earn. My salary is RM 2,000, yet I am being asked by agents in Malaysia to pay RM 8,000-9,000 for permit renewal.”

According to Khadijah, it is an overblown rate charged by the agents due to being able to navigate the corrupt bureaucracy of the system that employers and employees alike find hard to do, directly. “The actual cost of renewing a work permit is RM 800, the rest is pocketed at various levels.”

Is Latha considering paying that amount, four months’ worth of her salary, to stay on?

“Yes,” she answers. “There are no jobs in Sri Lanka for people like me. Especially jobs that will pay at rates enabling our families to survive. I will take a loan in Sri Lanka, come back here, and continue to earn. There is no alternative.”

Does she still think it worth it to pay to come work in Malaysia as opposed to getting paid to go work in the Gulf? “Yes” is the emphatic answer again. “Too many domestic workers’ coffins return from the Gulf. I am better off in Malaysia.”

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

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