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
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
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
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
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
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
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.