Our workers in Gulf need more protection

The torture that L P Ariyawathi, a 49-year-old Sri Lankan housewife, suffered at the hands of her employers in Saudi Arabia shocked the nation this week. The lady from Kamburupitiya recounted her nightmare of having more than twenty nails inserted into her body as ‘punishment’ by her persecutors.

Ariyawathi’s story - though exceptional in its degree of cruelty - is not the first horror story emanating from the Middle East. Time and again, we hear of incidents where Sri Lankan workers are subjected to various forms of exploitation, harassment, sexual abuse and torture. And we dare say this will not be the last.
Ariyawathi’s tale cannot be dismissed as an isolated incident.

It is a fact that there are probably thousands of stranded and helpless Sri Lankan workers in the Gulf, who are being subjected to various forms of degrading and inhuman treatment.
Their litany of woes continues despite the media episodically highlighting stories such as Ariyawathi’s with alarming regularity.

Certainly, in a day and age when human rights are considered a sine qua non in civilised society, there is no place for the kind of torture that Ariyawathi underwent in the Gulf. However, what is more alarming is the fact that the perpetrators of this kind of heinous acts often go undetected and unpunished, making a mockery of the concept of justice in Middle East states.
The exodus of workers to the Gulf accelerated in the late 1970s with the liberalisation of our economy under the hawk-eyed J R Jayewardene. He famously said, ‘let the robber barons come’ and not only did they arrive, Sri Lankans also had the chance to roam the world in search of greener pastures.

Hitherto, it was only the Sri Lankan professional or skilled worker who had the luxury of earning overseas. However, 1977 changed that and unskilled Sri Lankans, most of them unsuspecting housewives, began trekking to the Middle East in search of petro-dollars which promised riches beyond their wildest dreams.
Many - perhaps even the majority of them - did realise their dreams. Others, however, paid a heavy price, sacrificing their marriages and the wellbeing of their children in the process. But there was always the disgusting incident of abuse, torture or rape that we heard with an increasing frequency, in addition to the tales of woe where the ‘job agent’ had duped the worker of her hard earned savings.

It is sad to note that successive governments have done little to counter this phenomenon. Whenever there is an ‘incident’, there is some consternation but the issue dies a natural death after the headlines disappear from the front pages. And we cannot recall an instance where such matters have been taken up at a government to government level.

It is not as if Sri Lanka can afford to impose a blanket ban on employment in the Middle East until those countries get their act together in terms of employees’ rights and appropriate working conditions. Even a cursory glance at the statistics tell us this: Nearly 1.8 million Sri Lankans - almost one tenth of our population - is employed overseas and most of them are women working in the Middle East. Each year, some 100,000 workers seek employment there.

Last year, overseas workers remitted a staggering $3.3 billion to the country and this accounts for more than a third of the country’s foreign exchange needs. The bottom-line is clear: employment in the Middle East is probably the lifeblood of our economy, whether we like it or not.
In such circumstances, what can an economically less privileged country such as ours do? What we have been doing thus far is to turn a blind eye to incidents such as Ariyawathi’s and hope that the issue of worker abuse will go away until the next victim arrives at Katunayake with yet another tale of woe.

If anything, Ariyawathi’s story should convince those in authority that something needs to be done. This can come in the form of proper employment procedures, registering and regulating job agents, background checks on potential employers and setting up a channel of communication between employees and Sri Lankan missions in these countries to ensure the safety and welfare of workers.

In this day and age where information technology is pregnant with endless possibilities, these are not difficult tasks. And the Gulf states are not shy when it comes to implementing rules and regulations to the letter when their laws are flouted because harsh punishments are meted out to overseas offenders when they are found guilty of misdeeds in those countries. It is just that the boot has to fit, when it is on the other foot too.
The direction for this type of accountability from the Middle Eastern nations must come from political quarters, in the form of government to government contacts.

These are, after all, countries with which Sri Lanka enjoys excellent relations and there is no reason to fight shy of demanding what is justly due to our workers: appropriate wages, pleasant working conditions and the dignity and respect that any workers is entitled to.
If this does not happen now, there may well come a day when Sri Lankans will think twice about setting forth to the Gulf. And that could well be the final nail in Sri Lanka’s economic coffin.